The History of Temple Bar
Standing in the shadow of St Paul’s, this stone arch often gets overlooked. However Temple Bar is not only older than the current Cathedral, but it was designed by the same architect! Its history is a strange (and sometimes gruesome) tale…
First things first. This is not its original location. Temple Bar was an historic gateway into the City of London and is first recorded in 1293 at which point it was probably a literal bar across the road. The one designed by Wren was finished by 1672, replacing the earlier one that survived the Great Fire but was still falling apart.
For 206 years Temple Bar would stand proud at the point where Strand becomes Fleet Street.
The City Gate
As an official entrance into the City of London, the gateway was practical (gates closed in the event of invasion, plague or curfews) but also used for symbolic and ceremonial events.
Major national events like the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 were celebrated with processions that passed through Temple Bar. As the major defining line between Royal Westminster and the City of London, monarchs sometimes stop at Temple Bar to meet the Lord Mayor of the City who gives them the Pearl Sword.
But it was also used for more gruesome spectacles, like when iron spikes would display the heads of criminals and traitors. A warning for any prospective ne’er do wells entering the City.
If this makes you feel a bit squeamish, Londoners from the 18th century were apparently more curious. Horace Walpole (of Strawberry Hill House fame) recorded that while walking past Temple Bar he noticed “people make a trade of letting spy-glasses at a halfpenny a look”. Very entrepreneurial.
The last heads to have the *honour* of being displayed were that of Francis Towneley and George Fletcher who took part in a Jacobite rebellion in 1746. They were hanged, drawn and quartered before the heads were then placed above the arch of Temple Bar.
Amazingly they lasted there for over 50 years, only blowing down after a storm on 31 March 1772. Francis’ severed head is still in the care of his family!
The Traffic Bottleneck
By the late 1800s Temple Bar was more nuisance than landmark and in 1878 the whole thing was torn down stone by stone.
Temple Bar was replaced with the Temple Bar Memorial of 1880, subject of an earlier post which you can read here.
The Impulsive Purchase
And this is where it gets really interesting…
Temple Bar thankfully didn’t stay in a mass of stones, but was resurrected! The saviour was the most unlikely of characters, a banjo-playing barmaid.
Valerie Susan married Sir Henry Meux, the fabulously wealthy heir to the Meux Brewery which was based near Tottenham Court Road.
Born in Devon in 1852, Valerie was socialite and self-proclaimed actress. The pair met in the Casino de Venise in Holborn where Valerie would entertain guests. Within the context of Victorian society the assumption since was that she was also a sex worker. However, undeterred by any raised eyebrows however Henry married Valerie in 1878.
She continued to be her flamboyant self, reportedly riding around London in an open carriage pulled by zebras and installing an indoor rolling skating rink in their country estate; Theobald’s House. But the most extravagant purchase was Temple Bar.
In Hertfordshire Temple Bar had a new lease of life, hosting parties attended by King Edward VII and Winston Churchill.
But by the 1970s Temple Bar wasn’t in a good way. A trust was established to bring it back to the City but it would be over 3 decades before that was realised…
The Glorious Return
In December 2001 the Court of Common Council agreed to purchase Temple Bar for a whopping £1. Unfortunately they also had to pay the £3million of dismantling, transporting and rebuilding it. The funds were raised by the Corporation as well as the Temple Bar Trust and some of the City’s Worshipful Livery Companies.
Today it marks the entrance into Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange, other offices and an open space for public events and offices.
Read more about the curious column at its centre here.
Temple Bar Details
Temple Bar is Grade I listed and is remarkable for the amount of surviving original material. The gates for instance have been restored but 95% of their structure is original 17th century.
The statues are also the originals by James Bushnell (1638-1701) and were presumably kept in storage while Temple Bar was at Theobald’s House.
Sources seem divided on which Queen is depicted, with Historic England just saying ‘a Queen’ but it seems to me that James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark, is the most likely choice.
Temple Bar Today
So as well as being an historic landmark, is Temple Bar actually used for anything today? Actually, yes!
Look closely and there’s a walkway connecting it with the rooms above the Paternoster Square public toilet.
Having been curious about seeing inside since I started my Fleet Street and City walking tours, I finally got a chance to visit during this year’s Open House Festival!
Unfortunately, it’s a little underwhelming…
Before the City bought it back it was in a sorry state and so the interior fittings are entirely new. There is a redeeming feature though, this glorious view back across to St Paul’s Cathedral:
Today Temple Bar is the headquarters of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects, one of the smallest Livery Halls in the City. The room along with two other modern spaces can be hired for private events.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the rather twisting tale of Temple Bar’s History. Do give it a closer look next time you’re in the City!
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This is so interesting, it’s rather overlooked next to Britain’s greatest treasure but its a lovely structure. Its not as ornate inside but time hasn’t been kind I guess! The view is great! Pleased the statues survive, they really look great on the arch.
I often cyled past Temple Bar when it was in the middle of a field in Hertfordshire and wondering about it.