I own a small piece of the Berlin Wall, from Checkpoint Charlie. Well at least that’s what it says it is on the attached postcard a good friend gave me some years ago. The reality is that it could be a piece of concrete from any twentieth century structure such is the demand for mementos from the past. In the aftermath of the fall of the wall in 1989 many thousands of its pieces were taken home, treasured, sold or otherwise traded as relics of the old communist regime. Across the collapsing Soviet Union similar symbols of power were torn down, often to enter the market in souvenirs.
Human beings seem to like to keep relics of the past, some grim (like parts of the rope that hanged criminals) or sacred (such as the bones of saints), or otherwise memorable (the broken goalposts at Wembley removed by Scottish football fans springs to mind). So in 1878 when Temple Bar was being taken down – brick by brick – it is not surprising that some people thought they would like a piece of it.
Temple Bar used to mark the entrance to the City of London, one of several gates that once marked the limits of the city. Some sort of bar (perhaps just a chain or wooden beam) existed in the 13th century but by the late 14th it had become a fixed stone structure marking the entrance to the legal quarter, hence its name of Temple Bar.
The gateway survived the Great Fire in 1666 but was pulled own and rebuilt (possibly by Christopher Wren, no one seems to be entirely sure) in 1669. You can still see the 17th century gateway (which used to display the heads of traitors atop it) in Paternoster Square, by St Paul’s Cathedral.
But it had stood, from the medieval period, in Fleet Street, and by the early nineteenth century Fleet Street had become such a busy thoroughfare, and the city had expanded so much, that Temple Bar was simply too narrow a gateway in and out of old London. In addition the Royal Courts of Justice was beginning construction in Fleet Street and the two circumstances cemented a decision to remove the gateway.
The Corporation of London opted to keep the gateway until they could decided what to do with it rather than destroy it completely. So on 2 January 1878 workmen began to carefully dismantle the structure, ‘brick by brick, beam by beam, numbered stone by stone’. Which brings us back to the desire for ‘relics’ and the proceedings at Guildhall Police Court on Saturday 5 January 1878.
Reynold’s Newspaper reported that:
‘A man named Bell prosecuted for having wilfully damaged the stonework at Temple Bar, now in the process of removal. It was stated that the practice of chipping off pieces of stone from the building, with a view to keeping them as relics, was an exceedingly common one’.
The alderman magistrate decided enough was enough and, with the intention of deterring other souvenir hunters, he imposed a hefty fine of 40s on the unfortunate Bell with the threat that if he didn’t (or couldn’t) pay up he must go to prison for three weeks at hard labour.
It took 11 days to complete the removal of Temple Bar and two years later, in 1880, the City set up a memorial to mark its original site; a griffin on top of a tall pedestal now stands in Fleet Street where the gateway once did. The dismantled parts of Temple Bar eventually found their way to Hertfordshire and the estate of Lady Meux at Theobalds Park. It stayed there until the City repatriated it in 2004 to its present location.
There are no severed heads on Temple Bar these days. Well not as write at least…
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, January 6, 1878]
NB the history of Temple Bar cited above owes much to the Temple Bar website [http://www.thetemplebar.info/history.html]
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