Today (December 10) in London History – they felt a funeral in their brain

All changed, changed utterly. On this day, December 10th, 1877 they began to take down London’s great ceremonial landmark: Temple Bar. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It must have plucked the heartstrings of Londoners.

It was today, December 10th, 1877 that they started to knock down Temple Bar. 

The poor old Bar had some bad times ahead of it. For a decade it was effectively discarded. Thrown away. Allowed to moulder – if Portland Stone can moulder – in Farringdon Road. And then it had over a century of being exiled. Up in Hertfordshire. On the grounds of Theobalds Park, the brewer Henry Meux’s house up in Hertfordshire. Where it languished for over a century. And then miracle of miracles, it came home. Temple Bar came back to London.

It didn’t get back to its original position, right on the seam, right on the boundary, right where London meets Westminster, of if you prefer where Fleet Street, if you’re heading west suddenly becomes The Strand. But it least it was back in its hometown. Back in London. Today it stands just outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Come out of the great west front of the Cathedral, look to your right, and there it is. It’s not where it was originally, but it’s a superb position. It serves as a ceremonial entry point from Paternoster Square, London’s newish modern plaza, to the west front of St. Paul’s.

And a glance at it tells you why it would have been impossible to put it back in its original position.

Okay, let’s back up now. Temple Bar – and what stands in its original position now – is a wonderful teaching opportunity for understanding London. What stands there now – and the position is hugely important – remember, it’s where Fleet Street becomes the Strand, or, if you’re going in the other direction, it’s where The Strand becomes Fleet Street. Put more simply, it’s the boundary where London meets Westminster.

Anyway, what stands there now is a plinth surmounted by a Griffin. The Griffin is the symbol of the City of London. The Griffin is facing outward, it’s facing west. Facing the Strand and Westminster. In other words, it’s guarding London, it’s giving if not the evil eye certainly the once over to any and all who are approaching London from the west.

Now our teaching moment has to do with that western boundary of the City of London. Bears repeating, it’s where the Griffin stands, on sentry duty, keeping a watchful eye out, guarding London. And the griffin, remember, and this also bears repeating, stands where Temple Bar once stood. Definition of Temple Bar coming up, please be patient. Though of course you can look it up.

Anyway, that western boundary was not the original western boundary of London. The original western boundary was the Fleet River, which ran along the line of Farringdon Street and New Bridge Street. The Fleet river’s still there. It’s very hard to get rid of a river. It’s been culverted and is part of London’s storm overflow sewer system. Anyway, the Fleet provided the Romans with a natural defensive barrier to the west and into the bargain a harbour. And this was their city remember. The Romans – arguably the greatest urban planners the world has ever known – founded London. A hundred and fifty years or so after they founded the city, the Romans put a wall around it. The western part of the wall ran along the east bank of the Fleet River. 

Now, leap forward a thousand years. To Norman times. London expands. It bursts its western boundaries, it expands over the wall and over the Fleet River along Fleet Street some 400 yards or so to our focal point, to that spot where Temple Bar stood. The point where Fleet Street becomes the Strand. And they put a gate there to mark the demarcation between London and Westminster. It wasn’t a gate in the London Wall. The London Wall remember was back encircling the original London. Londinium. Roman London. It was a stand-alone gate. And it came to be called Temple Bar because just there, on the south side of Fleet Street, were the lands owned and occupied by the Knights Templars, that mediaeval organisation of knights who took it upon themselves to defend pilgrims making the pilgrimage out to the holy land and to defend the holy sepulchre, Jesus’s tomb, from the depredations of the infidel. 

You know, I thought long and hard how I was going to open the book – the London Walks book, London Walks, London Stories – and in the end what I came up with was the sentence, if you’re going to see London, you have to hear it. 

So, let’s hear a couple of place names in this neighbourhood. You’ve got two London wards right there. One is called Farringdon Ward Without. The other is called Farringdon Ward within. Those names tell the story. Farringdon Ward Within is the ward that’s just inside the wall. Farringdon Ward Without is the ward that’s outside the wall, the ward more or less bisected by Fleet Street. Or another one – this one’s pure magic – 

that area has also been known as Alsatia. After that Alsace-Lorraine boundary region where France meets Germany. 

It’s a region that’s caused a lot of trouble throughout history.

 And I think it’s fair to say that London’s Alsatia district has caused a fair bit of trouble in its day, peopled as it is with troublemakers: lawyers and journalists. Ok, the newspapers have now decamped, alas. But the memories live on. 

Anyway, what I want you to do now is take a good look at Temple Bar. Either online or the next time you’re at St Paul’s, in person, the real thing. It’s an impressive structure. Up above are statues of Charles II and James II. Off to either side are fairly narrow arched entryways. Those were for pedestrians. And then in the middle there’s a rather bigger opening, that was for horse-drawn vehicles.

And it was probably just fine when Wren put it up there in the early 1670s. The great ceremonial entry point for London. But of course London grew. More people all the time. And more traffic, more vehicles. So over the centuries Temple Bar became the most appalling traffic obstruction. Something had to be done. And something was done. As per the beginning of this podcast, you know what was done. Temple Bar was taken down, removed. They got started on that task on this day, December 10th, 1877. A pretty good guideline for making changes is: unless it’s absolutely necessary to change something it’s absolutely necessary not to change it. It was absolutely necessary to change things there at Temple Bar. But for a lot of Londoners it would have been a sad day. They were having to bid a final farewell to an old, much-loved friend. To borrow Emily Dickinson’s great line, they would have felt a funeral in their brain.

And a Today in London recommendation. Let’s plan to go to Duke of York’s Square in Chelsea. To the Saatchi Gallery. What’s caught my eye is their Beyond the Streets of London Exhibition. They’re billing it as the most comprehensive graffiti and street art exhibition to ever open in the UK. Let me stress though that this is one for the diary. The exhibition doesn’t open until February 17th. Runs through May 9th.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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