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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Freakish street performers in 17th century London

Walk through Leicester Square or Covent Garden today and you can see the usual street performers attracting gawping crowds. If you find these acts annoying, I’m afraid they’ve been a part of London life for hundreds of years. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys were Londoners who kept diaries of their daily lives and both described the entertainers they saw in the 17th century.

So…what kind of people were performing back then?

  • A man called The Turk. A rope was fixed to the top of a church steeple and the other end to the ground at a 90 degree angle. The Turk then climbed by his toes. When he reached the top, this fearless chap slid down head first with his arms and legs spread out.
  • The Hairy Woman. Her eyebrows covered her entire forehead. A lock of hair grew out of each ear. And she had a thick beard and moustache.
  • The Dutch Boy. Exhibiting himself at Charing Cross, this strange child had the words Deus Meus inscribed in tiny letters on the iris of one eye and Elohim on the other iris. Doctors examined him but disagreed whether the words were on his eyes from birth or placed there afterwards. It also seems he wasn’t blind.
  • Richardson the fire eater. This incredible individual chewed and swallowed hot coals, ate melted glass and put a hot coal on his tongue on top of which he cooked an oyster. He then had a drink….of pitch, wax and sulphur – flaming!

Add to that collection the usual array of contortionists, dancing bears and bull baiting. Something for everybody!

 

Where flappers went to dance in 1920s London

Hard to believe now but the Strand was once dominated by a vast and luxurious hotel called the Hotel Cecil.

With 800 rooms and riverside views, it became a centre of the “flapper” scene in the 1920s or the Jazz Age if you prefer. But the hotel had been built by a fraudulent company called the Liberator Society, led by Liberal Party politician Jabez Balfour (MP for Tamworth and later Burnley).

Balfour was a wheeler-dealer in the property market who played fast and loose with investors’ money. He eventually did a prison stretch having been arrested in Argentina, where he’d done a bunk.

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Hotel Cecil in the 1890s

Thousands of investors detested the very sight of the Hotel Cecil as it had been built with their savings frittered away illegally. so I doubt any survivors wept when the huge complex was swept away by the oil giant Shell in 1930.

It replaced the great Victorian edifice with Shell Mex house, a great hulk of an art deco statement that still graces the riverside today.

An 1890s guide to London I own describes the building in very scornful terms:

It was one of the outcomes of the notorious Liberator Society, whose shameful transactions led to the ruin of thousands of poor investors and for which the promotors have been justly punished.

Far from being impressed by Balfour’s sprawling hotel, the guide angrily notes that two venerable streets were swallowed up by the Hotel Cecil: Cecil Street and Salisbury Street. The name “Cecil” refers to the great aristocratic family who advised Tudor and Stuart monarchs.

Most famously, Sir William Cecil (Lord Burleigh) who had a house on the Strand – on the other side of the road from the hotel. There is still a Burleigh Street that roughly marks the spot, a pretty inconspicuous thoroughfare with a Barclays bank and the back end of the Lyceum Theatre on it.

As The Strand is renovated and is starting to recover its past glories – I can’t help feeling a renovated Hotel Cecil would have been hugely popular today. Ah well.

Flappers at the Hotel Cecil in the 1920s
Flappers at the Hotel Cecil in the 1920s
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Luxury in the Jazz Age – but it wouldn’t last
Hotel Cecil
Shell-Mex House with its big clock is where Hotel Cecil once stood