We all know that central London comprises three bits: the cities of Westminster and London, plus Southwark. The border with Southwark is self-evidently the Thames. But what about Westminster and the City? Well, it is where the Strand becomes Fleet Street, the spot in question known as Temple Bar. The name derives from the fact that it is immediately north of the Temple area, that is to say the district that contains the Inner and Middle Temples – both being Inns of Court – and the Temple Church, which dates from the 12th Century. Temple Bar is marked by this monument in the middle of the street, erected in 1880 and identifiably Victorian.
But this is a relatively modest item compared with what existed here before. The old Temple Bar was a decorative gated wall which straddled the whole road. Designed by Wren and erected in the 1670s, this impressive structure celebrated the Stuart dynasty.
Prior to this, the Temple Bar existed from at least the 13C, first as just a chain, and then from 1351 as a gate (surmounted by a small prison as was the custom) which served for three centuries and survived the Great Fire.
The job of Temple Bar was to regulate traffic between the two cities. Indeed, whenever the monarch wishes to enter the City, he or she has to be welcomed by the Lord Mayor of London. As an act of loyalty, he bestows the Sword of State to the sovereign who then returns it to be hoisted at the front of the procession.
The site of Temple Bar was also used as a pillory (both Titus Oates and Daniel Defoe being victims) and to display the severed heads of traitors.
Once the two elements of central London were as one, the traffic down the Strand/Fleet Street was such that the existing barrier became impractical. So Wren’s magnificent gate was removed. Luckily for us, one Sir Henry Meux fancied it as a folly on his farm in Hertfordshire. So there it remained forgotten, unloved and increasingly decrepit for almost a century. Then in the 1970s it was decided to bring it home, and in 1994, the old Temple Bar was eventually re-erected in Paternoster Square as part of the re-development of that space. And so there it is, once again witnessing thousands of Londoners going about their business every day.