The gory history of Temple Bar

If you stand in front of St Paul’s cathedral and look to your left, towards Paternoster Square, you’ll see a stone arch with windows and well-worn statues. This is Temple Bar. Hard to believe now, but there were once human heads on poles adorning the top of it.

Temple
Temple Bar when it was in Fleet Street – note the severed heads on poles on top

The structure was built in 1670 by Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect who gave us St Paul’s Cathedral and many smaller churches. He set about rebuilding London in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, a vast inferno that consumed much of the ancient city.

This terrible event had one upside. It gave Wren the opportunity to design a new and more ordered metropolis. However, poor Wren’s hopes of creating piazzas and wide streets was confounded at every turn by stubborn Londoners and their wish to keep the medieval winding thoroughfares and dark alleys.

So, why did Wren build Temple Bar? The stone gate replaced wooden posts and chains that separated the City of London from the City of Westminster. It was originally positioned across the road in front of what’s now the Royal Courts of Justice. On one side was Fleet Street in the City and on the other was The Strand leading to Whitehall and the centre of royal government.

Everybody entering the City had to pass under the Temple Bar. It wasn’t entirely popular. For one thing, it held up traffic. The archway soon became way too narrow for the mass of carts, horses, carriage and people trying to cram through and do business. It also had four poorly crafted statues of James I, Elizabeth I, Charles I and Charles II that were described in very unflattering terms by one Victorian writer as “mean” with “small feeble heads”. They’re not the greatest works of art it must be said.

Temple2
After being removed from Fleet Street – Temple Bar sat in a park outside London unloved and forgotten

The man who carved these mediocre works of art was called John Bushnell. By all accounts, he was somewhere between eccentric and insane. One scheme he devised was to prove that the Greeks could have invaded Troy by building his own Trojan Horse out of timber and covering it in stucco. He spent £500 of his own money (a vast sum then) on this project creating a horse’s head that could hold a dining table to seat twelve people. The whole thing fell to pieces during a storm.

There is a room along the top portion of Temple Bar that was used as a storage room for Child’s bank. On the very top of Temple Bar, the heads of traitors once stared down on passers-by. This was meant to be an object lesson for 17th and 18th century Londoners not to rebel against their anointed kings and queens.

The first head to appear on Temple Bar was Sir Thomas Armstrong involved in the so-called Rye House Plot. Next came Sir William Perkins and Sir John Friend who planned to assassinate King William III as he returned from hunting in Richmond – intercepting his coach between Brentford and Turnham Green. They were hanged at Tyburn despite pleading their innocence – and their heads removed for public display.

In a ghoulish twist, typical of London, there were enterprising people in 1746 who were reportedly hiring out looking glasses at Temple Bar so that passers-by could take a closer look at the severed heads. It cost a halfpenny apparently. In 1766, a man was arrested for firing musket balls at the heads – which he then confessed to having done for three nights running.

In 1772, one of the heads blew down during a storm. Incredibly, the blackened object had been on top of Templar Bar since 1723 – nearly fifty years! A chap called John Pearce took it to a local tavern where it was then buried under the floor. Must have been an amusing subject of conversation beforehand!

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The Debtor’s Doom – the grim fate for London’s penniless

London had its fair share of prisons located very centrally and one of them was the Fleet – where debtors were flung. The location is quite hard to imagine now but it would have been roughly where Limeburner Lane and Fleet Place are today – bordered by Ludgate Hill, Old Bailey and what is now Farringdon Street. That street was originally the Fleet river, which still runs underneath channeled into the sewers.

Fleet Prison
Fleet Prison in 1691 – note the inmates begging for passing charity

The prison was pulled down in 1846 after 700 years of banging up criminals. The site was sold off to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway company and there’s still a City Thameslink station nearby. I can remember in the 1970s when there was a now removed railway bridge across the road. All traces of the miserable prison disappeared long ago but it was a notorious place in its heyday. A poem in 1738 summed up the horror:

A starving life all day we lead; No comfort here is found; At Night we make one Common bed; Upon the boarded ground

And the prisoners often grumbled that there were plenty in high society who were committing worse crimes than they had but got away it because of their social position:

Thus, we Insolvent debtors live; Yet we may Boldly say; Worse Villains often Credit give; Than those that never pay

For wealthy knaves can with applause; Cheat on, and ne’er be try’d; But in contempt of human Laws; In Coaches Safely ride

The Fleet was mainly a debtors prison from the 17th century onwards and run by a warden who had almost dictatorial powers. He also had the right to “farm” the prisoners – that is, extort fees from them for their upkeep. This may seem unusual to us now, but prisoners on arrival at the Fleet had to cough up six shillings, bring their own bedding or hire some or sleep on the floor. Conditions were appalling and abuse was rife. One warden, Thomas Bambridge, was notorious for holding prisoners in irons and refusing to let them leave after their sentences had expired.

Fleet Prison in 1830 - note the racket court
Fleet Prison in 1830 – note the racket court

During the Gordon Riots of 1780, the Fleet was burnt down but after repairs, it carried on in business. Prisoners would beg passers by for charity. Raising some money was their only forlorn hope of escaping this four storey hell with its high walls, chapel, coffee-room and tap-rooms. It was badly lit and a countless number of doors opened up onto rooms averaging 14 by 12 feet. Walking down the dark corridors, you would have heard an endless clanging of doors to jar your nerves. If the prisoners were lucky, a wealthy passer-by clutching scented herbs to their nose, would approach the barred windows and press a coin in to their hands.

There was a recreation yard that included a racket court. Every year, the prisoners elected a Racket Master to run the sports activities here and this was apparently a hotly contested position. In 1841, three

people were running against each other to win the position. One candidate noted that the “health of my fellow inmates is in some measure placed in the hands of the person appointed”.  Skittle Master was another bitterly contested post among the prisoners!Fleet prison

In 1842, parliament agreed to proceed with the demolition of the Fleet and transfer of all prisoners to the Queen’s Bench Prison. Some prisoners weren’t happy about this, especially as the Queen’s Bench ran a tougher regime. A song went thus:

To racquets, skittles, whistling shops; We must soon say farewell; The Queen’s assent to her prison bill; Has rung their funeral knell