The timbered building on the south side of High Holborn known as Staple Inn, famous for being pictured on Old Holborn tobacco packets (below, right), is often presumed to be an intact survivor of Tudor London. Not really. Though listed and of Tudor origin, it has become an example of what archaeologists call “virtually modern fakes”, with the beams and woodwork put in comparatively recently as part of a reconstruction following wartime bomb damage.
If you want to see a bit of really old Holborn, walk a few yards down the road towards Fetter Lane to a small doorway marked Barnard’s Inn (below, left), which dates back to at least 1400. It sports signs on either side saying “Gresham College”, revealing it to be the home of a unique educational institution which is still going strong after over 400 years.
Barnard’s Inn, like Staple Inn, was one of the old Inns of Chancery – sort of prep schools for lawyers wanting to join one of the Inns of Court, such as Lincoln’s Inn. Within, stands Barnard’s Inn Hall, whose structure today is much as it was in the 15th century.
The hall is all that remains of the mansion of John Mackworth, the Dean Of Lincoln who died in 1451. Archaeologist John Schofield describes it as “the only surviving medieval secular timber structure of domestic scale in the City”. The roof timbers contain the last crown posts, a specialised wood structure, in the whole of London.
Mackworth left the whole of the property to the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, which subsequently leased it to a man called Lionel Barnard, from whom it takes its name. It was converted into an Inn of Chancery soon after, attached to Gray’s Inn. Not everyone was an admirer. Charles Dickens allowed his character Pip to lodge at Barnard’s Inn in Great Expectations, where it is dismissed it as “the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together, in a rank corner, as a club for Tom-cats.”
Gresham College was founded separately in 1597 under the will of the amazing Sir Thomas Gresham in order to provide free public lectures for anyone who wants to hear them and has continued to do so throughout its long and distinguished history. It is, though, a recent arrival at Barnard’s Inn – lectures began there in 1991. The college was originally in Bishopsgate, where Tower 42 – formerly the Nat West Tower – was later built, and it had a number of other homes before arriving at its present one.
If you want to see Barnard’s Hall, one of the ways is to simply turn up at a lecture, though they are sometimes moved to the Museum of London if they become too popular. These days, they are also live streamed and available afterwards from the college archive and on YouTube. It is an astonishing educational resource, which is still not widely known about.
Another venerable repository of learning, the Royal Society – whose early members included Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren – was founded at Gresham College in 1660 and also still going strong.
Gresham himself was an extremely rich and powerful man – among other things he built the Royal Exchange, London’s first stock market – and although his reputation is being re-appraised in the light of how he made his money, there is no doubt about the huge contribution he made to London.
Main image: Bernard’s Inn hall interior circa 1400. This article is the second of 25 to be written by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in Holborn, Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury and St Giles, kindly supported by the Central District Alliance business improvement district, which serves those areas. On London‘s policy on “supported content” can be read here.
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