Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Chancery Lane

This station, which has no surface building, is in the heart of legal London.

Its three entrances/exits are all on High Holborn

Just past the station on either side of the road are two dragons standing on plinths. The dragon is a winged reptile capable of breathing fire. In legends they are associated with guarding something and they are here guarding the City of London. The boundary of the 'square mile' or the City of London was established by the Romans in 55BC and is surrounded by dragons marking out where the gates in the City walls used to be.

To understand this area it is probably worthwhile mentioning the Inns of Court. The Inns of Court in London are the professional associations for barristers in England and Wales. It is where barristers traditionally train and practise. Each Inn covers several acres providing libraries, professional accommodation and a church or chapel.

There are now just four Inns of Court: Lincoln's Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray's Inn. They are all within a short distance of one another but the two closest to Chancery Lane Underground station are Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn. Just off Chancery Lane is  Lincoln's Inn, the largest of the Inns with records going back to 1422.

This is the gatehouse from Chancery Lane into The Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn. Built in 1518 the doors and red brickwork are original but the windows were inserted in the 17th cent.

This is what the Gateway looks like from inside Lincoln's Inn.

The Inn began as a Dominican Friary (1221-76) which in the 14thcent became a hostel for lawyers. The Old Hall (1492) was the living room of the original residential community of lawyers. Nowadays the Lawyers work from a number of offices grouped around  four green areas.

The chapel (1619-23) was rebuilt in 1797 and again in 1883. The chapel bell tolls whenever a Bencher, a member of the Council, the governing body of the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn, dies. Upon hearing the bell toll, barristers would send their clerks to enquire about the identity of the deceased. This tradition was the inspiration for the poet John Donne's words:
'..........never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.' Donne was a 17th cent poet and priest who became the Preacher of Lincoln's Inn before he became Dean of St Paul's.

It is worth a visit to the chapel to see the stained glass windows.

A detail from one of the stained glass windows showing the Head of St Simon with a view of Lincoln's Inn by Bernard Van Linge c1624

17th cent cloisters beneath the chapel.

This path from New Square in Lincoln's Inn takes you into Star Yard where you come across this cast iron public toilet from the 1850s. I've never seen one before but its bright paint makes it look almost new. It is now padlocked so I assume it is no longer in use. I continued through the alley back onto Chancery Lane,

I came back onto Chancery Lane by this shop. Established in 1689, Ede and Ravenscroft is thought to be the oldest firm of tailors in the world. They supply ceremonial robes for all occasions including Royal coronations and clothing for the judiciary.


Also on Chancery Lane are the London Silver Vaults. I didn't realise that members of the public can visit without an appointment but yes, you can. So after the usual bag search I was in and descended down into the bowels of the building (the Vaults are three floors below the main building).

The Silver Vaults originally opened as the Chancery Lane safe deposit in 1876 renting strong rooms where Londoners could safeguard their household silver and  jewellery. In time businesses and silver dealers rented the Vaults for storage. After WW2 it was rebuilt with retail units and opened in its present form in 1953. The Vaults consist of numerous shops and represent the greatest concentration of silver dealers in the world. I spent most of my time in shop#1 as the dealer was so enthusiastic and informative. He is very keen to educate me about some of the earliest items in the shop as well as the more unusual.

Items for a lady's dressing table.
These were two of his favourite items. Try as I might I couldn't guess what they were but then I have never heard of spoon warmers before, nor ever felt the need for one.

I know this is one place I will return and spend much longer looking around the numerous other silver shops in the vaults.

I continued down Chancery lane passing the law Society on my right and King's College Strand Campus on my left.

This 19th cent Gothic Building was once home to the Public Records Office but when the records were moved to a new site at Kew, this building was converted for use by King's College London for its Maughan Library.

Side view of the library


Just around the corner from Chancery Lane on Fleet Street is Cliffords Inn. This is all that remains of Cliffords Inn, founded in 1345 as one of the Inns of Chancery.

A little further along Fleet Street is the Guild Church of St Dunstan in the West. There has been a church on this site since 988 but this present one was rebuilt after WW2. It is more well known for its clock which dates from 1671 and was the first public clock in London to have a minute hand. The figures of the two giants Gog and Magog strike the hours and quarters. The building next to the church is 186 Fleet Street, the Dundee Courier building. Sweeney Todd the demon barber of Fleet Street had his shop here. On this site it is claimed that he murdered over 100 of his clients before selling their flesh to Margery Lovett who owned a pie shop in nearby Bell's Yard.

Drinking fountain outside the church. The face inside the fountain would scare anyone taking a drink.

Moving away from the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street I walked through a couple of alleyways

I came out into Gough Square to find the house of  Dr Samual Johnson (1709-84)

This 300 yr old town house is where Samuel Johnson, the writer and wit lived and worked in the middle of the 18th cent. It was here he compiled his Dictionary of the English Language but perhaps he is more well known for  his many quotes:' When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.'

Opposite the house at the other end of the Square is a bronze statue of one of Johnson's cats. The cat is sitting on a dictionary with oysters at his feet. The cat was greatly indulged with Johnson himself going out to buy it some oysters.

I continued my walk up Fetter's Lane which brought me out onto High Holborn close to the wonderful Tudor frontage of Staple Inn.

During medieval times it wasn't easy to get into  one of the main Inns of Court so students joined one of the Inns of Chancery in the hope of moving to one of the more prestigious Inns at a later date. During the 18th cent it became easier to get into the Inns of Court and by the late 19th cent the  Inns of Chancery were no longer used and the buildings were sold. However one building does remain just a few metres from the tube station and that is Staple Inn. The original building was erected in 1545-89 and had various alterations and restorations during the 1800s. Other than the original frontage the rest of the building was reconstructed in 1937.

Next to the Tudor frontage is an arched entrance to the courtyard and beyond that the garden. At the other end of the  building is a wrought iron gateway leading to offices many of which are used by the legal profession.

Across Holborn is this Victorian Gothic building, built as the headquarters of the Prudential Assurance Company. Built between 1879 and 1901 it included a chapel, restaurant and hall for company plays. It also had electric lighting and plumbed running hot water. It was continually refurbished and in the 30s the Gothic interior was changed to art deco. Known as Holborn Bars it is no longer occupied by the Prudential but is a conference venue as well as office accommodation.

This is the Cittie of Yorke pub. Although it has had parts added on and rebuilt, it has been her since Tudor times and maybe even before then. For many hundreds of years it was a coffee house where financial deals would have been struck. Next to the pub is a gateway that leads into Gray's Inn. The Inn is named after Reginald De Grey, Chief Justice of Chester whose London Mansion later became a hostel for lawyers after his death in 1308.

As you walk through the gateway you are greeted with the dos and don'ts of the Inn.

The buildings in the Inn are grouped around two squares.

Gray's Inn chapel. There has been a chapel and chaplain(known as a Preacher) on the same site since 1315.

The Hall has been its present size and shape since 1556. Even the bombing of 1941 did not totally destroy the 16th cent walls. The windows, pictures and other irreplaceable pieces were moved to a place of safety during the war and were returned to their rightful position at the end of the war.

This is the library built in 1958 but there is evidence of a library room from 1488 when Edmund Pickering bequeathed six books to be chained there.

I left Gray's Inn Square and walked across the road to Baldwin's Gardens. I was very surprised to see this church as it just seems to appear from nowhere. St Alban the martyr is an Anglo Catholic church built in 1863,

I popped inside to have a look and was taken aback by the size of the mural behind the altar.

I walked through the church into the tiny courtyard outside where there is this sculpture by the same artist, Hans Feibusch in 1985.

Exiting through the courtyard took me into Brookes Market a very small square dominated by this building which I thought was a hotel. The Lodge of St Ursula's was opened by St Mungo's( a homelessness charity and housing association) and the City of London Corporation. It is a 40 room bed and breakfast style accommodation specifically aimed at helping long term older rough sleepers who are reluctant to go to hostels.

Brookes Market led me on to Leather Lane which was full of  stalls selling all manner of street food. The street took me back out onto High Holborn and Chancery Lane Underground station.


  1. You certainly covered a decent sized area. It is nice to see the sunshine and some blue sky. I am pleased to learn there are lots of places of worship where solicitors and barristers can visit to confess and be absolved from their sins.

  2. I've said it before but the age of these buildings is gobsmacking. The history is amazing too. Loved this post. I'm learning so much about London, where I lived as a child.

  3. Another great tour. So those vaults - did they figure in the Harry Potter series?
    Did you do this all in one day?

  4. Great photos and commentary.

  5. Amazing -- since there was no above-ground station, I thought this would be a minor stop -- was that ever wrong! So much fascinating history and beauty -- and I love that you were able to go into the Silver Vault place even though you hadn't known about the tours at all before you got there -- that's a perfect example of why nobody could ever get tired of London!

    I laughed about several things as I read too -- A hostel full of lawyers is quite a scary thought, yikes! (My dad was one, not quite as long ago, so I guess i'm allowed to make fun of the profession.)
    And I'd forgotten about Johnson's oyster-eating cat, though I think I do remember reading about it once.

  6. I love the dragon sculptures and the architecture, we simply don't have anything like this in NZ because it's a relatively new country it just doesn't have the history that the UK does. Great photos, enjoyed looking through them and I've just added you to my blog links if that's ok :-)

  7. Wonderful (again). The tailors sound like a company from Harry Potter!

    I suspect that the congregation at my Orkney church is zero - the place is for sale - tempting I have to say!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  8. Thank you for sharing so much interesting information about the history of this place. It is surprising to see how the legal profession is so concentrated in one area, and how their occupation evolved over the years. Such a wonderful tour!

  9. You take me to places I 've hear of but never seen. Brilliant


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