Over the centuries, London has seen many secret societies – right down to our own time. Normally made up of aristocratic gentlemen or wannabes and engaging in bizarre and sometimes profane or lewd rituals.
The Kit-Cat Club originally met at the house of a pastry cook called Christopher Cat on Shire Lane, near Temple Bar. The name of the club came from the mutton pie that was his speciality. Or at least that’s one theory (most likely from Daniel Defoe). Another was that the members toasted “old cats and young kits”. When Christopher moved out of his house, the club followed him to the Fountain Tavern on The Strand.
The members of the Kit-Cat Club had been gentlemen who had come together to plot a revolution against King James II. This monarch had tried to bring back the Catholic religion and introduce a more authoritarian form of monarchy normally associated with King Louis XIV in France. The so-called “Whigs” – Protestant nobility – were having none of this and they successfully conspired to overthrow James and drive him into exile.
Every year, they would toast a woman chosen by a ballot of the members. Her name would be carved on to the glasses with a diamond. The men voting for Kit-Cat woman of the year included such 18th century grandees as Sir Robert Walpole, the Earls of Halifax and Dorset and the Duke of Somerset. So a distinguished group!
There’s a monument that many office workers pass under every day that they’d never realise has a ghoulish past. It’s an innocuous old gateway that leads from the front of St Paul’s cathedral into Paternoster Square. A lovely old thing with two statues on either side. What’s not to like?
Only you have to imagine this gateway – Temple Bar – in its original location. For centuries, it bestrode Fleet Street as the westernmost entrance to the City of London. The spot is now marked by a late Victorian monument – a sort of pillar – with a dragon on top. The reason for Templar Bar’s removal was that by the 1870s, the 17th century gateway was causing serious traffic jams with its narrow arches. So it was taken apart stone by stone and re-erected in a park owned by a brewer for many years before being moved to its current spot in 2004.
The ghoulish part of its history is that Temple Bar was more often than not surmounted by the heads of traitors on spikes in the eighteenth century. Sir Christopher Wren had designed the arch to replace one incinerated in the Great Fire of 1666. The statues on it, by the way, are of Queen Elizabeth I and James I on one side and Charles I and Charles II on the other. After the Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745, the heads of leading rebels decorated the top. This was to be an object lesson to bolshy Londoners that anybody taking on the kings of England would see their head join the others.
One of the heads was that of a leading rebel against the king, involved in the so-called “Jacobite” uprisings, called Christopher Layer. Like many traitors, his head remained on top of Templar Bar for years. In fact, you could hire some glasses to take a closer look if you wanted. But one stormy night, Layer’s head blew off his spike and bounced into Fleet Street. It was picked up by an attorney called John Pearce who took it to a local public house and showed if off to his friends.
An account of this incident I have before me from the early nineteenth century says that a friend of Isaac Newton and eccentric collector Dr Richard Rawlinson asked if he could buy the head. Apparently, he was palmed off with somebody else’s head (where were all these heads coming from!!). When he died, Rawlinson “directed it to be buried in his right hand”. I know – weird eh? And so what happened to Layer’s head? Well, the story has it that it was buried under the floor of the aforementioned public house.