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.

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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.

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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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Thomas Savage

Londoner executed not once – but twice!

Thomas Savage was born in the parish of St Giles in the Fields and as a youth, became an apprentice to a certain Mr Collins, a vintner at the Ship Tavern at Ratcliff Cross. Three hundred years ago, when this story is set, Ratcliff was a hamlet by the river Thames with a strong ship building and provisioning tradition. It’s long been swallowed up by the borough of Tower Hamlets, located between Shadwell and LImehouse.

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Thomas Savage at the “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay

The teenager Thomas showed what a wicked person he was by not attending church on the Sabbath.  “Breaking the Sabbath” was illegal at the time – this being the late seventeenth century. But that didn’t bother Thomas too much who spent his Sunday at a “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay, “a vile common strumpet , who was the cause of his ruin” (as one account puts it).

At first, Savage turned up at the brothel with wine and he and the prostitute Hannah got merrily drunk and enjoyed themselves. But being a lady of the night, Hannah wanted money for her services. So she goaded Thomas into robbing Mr Collins. But Savage explained that Collins’ maid was always in the house. To which Hannah responded:

Hang her, a jade! Knock her brains out and I’ll receive the money and go anywhere with you beyond sea, to avoid the stroke of justice.

So the weak-willed Thomas headed back to the Collins house and avoided his master by climbing over a back wall. He then ran into the other servants having dinner including the ever-present maid. Rather unwisely, she took Savage to task for spending too much time at the bawdy house. He didn’t like this telling off and it convinced him to bash her brains out as Hannah had advised.

So one day he took a hammer and began hitting out at objects round the house to provoke her to anger. This presumably would have made it easier for him to do the foul deed. Thomas needed to psyche himself up to commit his first murder. Initially, the maid seems to have tried to ignore this bizarre behaviour but eventually she asked him to stop. He then threw the hammer and scored a direct blow on her head. Falling to the ground she screamed in pain and her assailant hesitated to deal the fatal blow. He just couldn’t quite do it.

But as she moaned and groaned, he set about her with the hammer and snuffed the maid’s life out. Breaking open a cupboard, he found a bag with sixty pounds of Collins’ money – a princely sum then – and escaped. Meeting up with Hannah, his behaviour became increasingly erratic. She asked for all of it but he only gave her half a crown and then fled. In the hours that followed, he sat by the roadside crying out loud about what he had done. Eventually, gathering his wits about him, he went down to a guest house in Greenwich.

The mistress of this guest house was very suspicious to find a seventeen year old with a bag bulging with so much money. She asked him what he was doing. Thomas lied that he was on his way to Gravesend to meet his master, a wine cooper. This story seemed a bit fishy and Thomas, now in a total panic, said she could contact his master and in fact, he’d leave the money with her until she did.

So without any of his ill-gotten gains, Savage wandered off to Woolwich. Shortly after, word of his murder filtered down from Ratcliff to Greenwich – it took much longer for news to get around in the days before mass media. The mistress of the guest house sent a group of men to go after him and he was found in a Woolwich ale house, head on the table and a pot of beer by his side. The men challenged him:

Tom – did you not live at Ratcliff?

Yes

And did you not murder your fellow servant? And you took so much money from your master? You must go along with us!

Yes, with all my heart.

In custody, Savage confessed everything. On the day he went to court, his fellow prisoners got him a bit drunk and he shopped Hannah Blay to the authorities. She was then arrested too. Thomas was sentenced to death – the punishment to be carried out at Ratcliff Cross. This was quite a common thing to do – to kill the criminal at the place where they had committed their crime. Savage’s hanging was postponed on one occasion and news was given to him as he was dressed up for the occasion.

What – have I got on my dying clothes? Dying clothes did I say? They are my living clothes, the clothes out of which I shall go into eternal glory. They are the best clothes that ever I put on!

At Ratcliff Cross, there seems to have been some sympathy among the crowd for this pathetic figure. He said a little prayer and the cart pulled away to leave him struggling at the end of the rope. A friend beat Thomas around the chest to shorten his misery. Motionless and left dangling for a while, everybody assumed Savage was dead. His friends then took him to a nearby house and laid his body on a table. Then something incredible happened. Thomas started breathing!

His throat rattled. He heaved upwards. Then his eyes and mouth opened. His teeth are described as having been “set before” – I assume that means in his death struggle, they’d been pushed out – and he couldn’t speak. Now you might think he’d have been let off but not in seventeenth century England. As word got out that Savage was alive, an embarrassed sheriff turned up and took him back to the gibbet. Poor Savage was then hanged all over again until he was properly dead.

His forlorn friends then spirited his seventeen year old body away to Islington where he was buried on the 28th October, 1668.