London’s Roman City Wall: The Obscured – Part 8

Introduction

This post is the eighth in a series, which is aimed at documenting all the surviving sections of the Roman city wall, and will focus on part of the northern section of the wall which stretches from Bishopsgate in the east, to the Barbican Estate in the west, where it would have met with the existing walls of the earlier Roman garrison.

As is shown in the map below, the line of this part of the wall can be partially traced in the modern city today by following route of its namesake, the street appropriately named London Wall. The green lines on the map represents the walls of the earlier Roman garrison.

As this northern section of the wall is rather long, I will deal with it in three segments with this post focusing on the section from Bishopsgate to Blomfield Street.

The Roman city wall of London dates back to the 2nd century CE and was a significant feature of The City for over 1500 years. When it finally ceased to be useful as a defensive structure from the 18th century, the gateways were demolished and wall became consumed by the development of roads and buildings which has taken place over the last 300 years to the point where little evidence remains of the wall above ground today.

However, the remains of the wall are often hidden and not entirely lost, and so as is often the case, surprises await the curious.

Wormwood Street

Starting from Bishopsgate and heading west, the line of the Roman Wall forms the rear building line of the properties along the north side of Wormwood Street, a short and busy thoroughfare between Bishopsgate and Old Broad Street. 

Wormwood Street is named after the medicinal herb: wormwood, which was grown on open ground here within the city walls during the Middle Ages. Oddly the neighbouring street on the other side of Bishopsgate is called Camomile Street, also after herbal plants that grew there.

The modern Wormwood Street is described by Pevsner as a “bleak traffic artery”, but it was not always so. It was during the 1970s that the road was widened to the south to create the dual carriage-way of the inner ring road, which necessitated the total loss of the buildings on that side of the road. What remains today is a mix of post 1970s office developments with just two older survivors on the north side of the street.

Wormwood Street junction with Bishopsgate, London, EC2
Wormwood Street junction with Bishopsgate, London, EC2

The building on the corner of Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street (21 Wormwood Street / 105-107 Bishopsgate), with a Boots Optician on the ground floor, is from 1995-7 by Fitzroy’s. It has six storeys on Bishopsgate, stepping down to four on Wormwood Street to provide a consistent roof line.

It reused an earlier 1950s building’s framework and shares the same curved corner profile with its predecessor.

Another element transferred from the previous building, although repositioned, is the bronze bishop’s mitre positioned on the first floor wall which can just be seen to the far right in the photograph above, and in detail below. The mitre is in commemoration of the Bishopsgate, one of the original Roman entrances into Londinium.

A Bishop's Mitre on the wall of Bishopgate, marking the site The Bishopgate
A Bishop’s Mitre on the wall of 105-107 Bishopgate, marking the site The Bishopgate

The Bishopsgate was rebuilt many times after the Roman era, first in the 7th century by Eorconweold, Bishop of London; in 1431 by Hansa merchants; and finally by the City authorities in 1735 which stood only until 1760 when the gateway was finally demolished.  The mitre also used to mark the line of the City wall at this location on the 1950s building, but is now positioned a little to the north of its original location. It also used to be one of a pair, with the other situated on the opposite side of the Bishopsgate, on the building that stood where the Heron Tower rises today.

North side of Wormwood Street, London, EC2 looking towards Bishopsgate.
North side of Wormwood Street, London, EC2 looking towards Bishopsgate.

Just to the left of centre in the photograph above are the oldest two remaining buildings of Wormwood Street. That on the left, No. 26, is a modest Georgian house, the last remaining of a terrace of six built in 1771-1772. On the right No 25, is a grander Victorian building of 1889, designed by Joseph & Smithem, and fronted in shallow carved panels of Bath stone.

The most recent archaeological studies in Wormwood Street were in the mid 1990s, prior to the construction of the properties shown in the centre and to the right of centre in the photograph above, Nos. 20-21 and 22-24 Wormwood Street. The former buildings at this location having being demolished due to structural damaged caused by the IRA Bishopsgate bomb of 1993. The study found the northern back walls of the cellars of 22-24 were in fact the remains of the City wall with 19th century refacing, and incorporated some of the superstructure of the Roman wall in places.

Rear of Nos. 26, 25 and 24-22 Woomwood Street, their back walls resting on the remains of the Roman City Wall.
Rear of Nos. 26, 25 and 24-22 Woomwood Street, their back walls resting on the remains of the Roman City Wall.

There is nothing of the City Wall visible externally at these sites, but the line of the city wall forms a distinct rear building line for these properties. As shown in the photograph above, where the rear walls of those building have been recorded as sitting on the structural remains of the wall.  There is mention of parts of the wall being preserved and made visible internally within the basement of those developments, but I have been able to verify this personally.

At the western end of Wormwood Street is a L-shaped office block also fronting onto Old Broad Street. This is Broad Street House designed by Ley, Colbeck and Partners and built 1972-77. It has a slab and smoked glass curtain wall tower of eleven storeys facing Wormwood Street, with an adjoining two story slab and smoked glass section facing Old Broad Street. Both of which sit on a two storey podium of polished brown granite. The podium formed part of the City’s highwalk from Liverpool Street to Leadenhall. The bridge across Wormwood Street is one of the last remaining elements of this highwalk and will likely be removed at some point, but for the fact it also provides the fire escape route for Broad Street House.

London Wall

The street named London Wall is today in two distinct parts. The older part dating from medieval times is a continuation of Wormwood Street from the junction with Old Broad Street and runs west to the junction with Coleman Street. The road continues west past Coleman Street but was widened and realigned during the 1950s as part of the post war redevelopment of the Barbican area.

All Hallows on the Wall

The next evidence of the City wall is the church and church yard of All Hallows on the Wall. As the name suggests the church itself rests on the former City wall. To be precise the Vestry, and northern wall of the church, along with the wall of the churchyard is built directly upon the remains of the Roman City Wall here.

The first records of a church at this location date from c.1120, with the churchyard recorded from 1348.  The current building replaced a later church from 1300 which had fallen in to a disrepair despite being one of the few City churches to have survived the Great Fire of 1666.

Church of All Hallows on the Wall, London Wall, EC2
Church of All Hallows on the Wall, London Wall, EC2

The present church is Georgian era and was constructed in 1765-67.  The project was the first major commission for the young architect George Dance the Younger, having won a competition for the design at the age of 24 shortly on his return from studies in Rome. Despite his large body of work in the city, this is one of only a few of his buildings that remain today.

See my other posts on America Square, Crescent and Circus for some more of Dance the Younger’s works.

Archaeological investigations in 1905 revealed that the vestry which juts out of the northern side of the church in a semi-circular fashion, is in fact built directly onto one of the former Roman bastion towers (No. 11).  These semi-circular bastions were later additions to the wall and were placed regular intervals on the external side of the wall as additional defences during the late 3rd century CE.

Illustration from the Museum of London's from the missing London Wall Walk information panel No.10.
Illustration from the Museum of London’s from the missing London Wall Walk information panel No.10.

Also in 1905, other excavations at this site revealed a portion of the City wall, forming the northern boundary of the churchyard. The Roman fabric had survived to a height of 12ft (3.66m) up to modern ground level and extended for 41ft (12.6m) west of the northwest corner of the church.  As with other sections of wall that have been recorded in this area, there was a Roman drain or culvert built into the foot of the wall, the significance of which I shall go into in the next post in this series.

The wall visible above ground in the churchyard today is of medieval construction dating from 1540, with later 18th century brick and tile cappings. There used to be another of the tiled plaques from the Museum of London’s Roman Wall Walk, as shown above situated next to the wall by the entrance to the church.  The steel legs remain, but the information panel is missing.

Looking west along Medieval wall at All Hallows churchyard. The tiled information panel is gone, but it's legs remain in the foreground.
Looking west along Medieval wall at All Hallows churchyard.
The tiled information panel is gone, but it’s legs remain in the foreground.

To Blomfield Street

Continuing west from the churchyard to Blomfield Street, there is just one large building known as 85-88 London Wall. It occupies a large site which fronts London Wall to the south, Blomfield Street to the west, and New Broad Street to the north.

In 1988 during the redevelopment of 85-88 London Wall which is on the eastern corner of Blomfield Street and London Wall, the outer face of the city wall was exposed and the land immediately to the north inspected. This was the site of the city ditch and the eastern bank of the river Walbrook. Remains of wooden structures aligned to the Walbrook were recorded, along with evidence of a systems of drainage channels and ditches, but the most interesting find during this inspection was a scatter of over 700 Roman terracotta counterfeit coin moulds. The moulds would have used to produce forgeries of a number of different of silver and bronze coins dating from the early to mid 3rd century AD.

A selection of the moulds from this find can be seen on display within the Museum of London. of shown in the photo below.

Roman Forger's Coin Moulds found at 85-88 London Wall in 1988, on display in the Museum of London
Roman Forger’s Coin Moulds found at 85-88 London Wall in 1988, on display in the Museum of London

The Obscured Part

As is the raison d’ĂȘtre of this series of posts, to find the hidden or obscured evidence of the wall, by chance, one lunchtime I was kindly given a behind the scenes tour of All Hallows on the Wall to see what was described as their “Roman wall in the crypt”. There is indeed a section of wall that has been left un-rendered in the north wall of the crypt and it is at the right depth and position to possibly be the inner face of the original Roman Wall. Unfortunately most of what is visible looks like 18th century brick-work repairs to the damaged inner face of the wall, but there are several courses of original rag-stone visible. So this would classify as an “obscured” section of Roman Wall to warrant inclusion in this post, for which at the start of writing I was not aware of.

Roman block work is present in places in the crypt of All Hallows on the Wall church
Roman block work is present in places in the crypt of All Hallows on the Wall church

Update for 2015

On another occasion I noticed that the building next door to 85-88 London Wall, which is 53 New Broad Street was being refurbished and was getting close to completion. This building backs on to the north of the section of the city wall which is seen in the All Hallows on the Wall churchyard. Wondering if this would offer any better views at the below-ground level of the wall, I asked the site manager if I could come in to have a look at the City walls at the basement levels, to which he kindly obliged.

North side and lower portion of Roman City Wall, at All Hallows on the Wall, London Wall, EC2

The photo above shows that north face of the City wall below ground level, at the rear of 53 Old Broad Street. This is essentially the entire rear of the wall shown in the Museum of London illustration above. This outer face of the wall does not look perfectly in tact from the Roman era, but it would likely show the full height of the wall here from 2-3m (6-10ft) below ground level. It seems there are straight courses of regular blocks of stonework visible, which is typical of the Roman construction and also part of the Roman tiled bonding course is showing above the lowest two courses of larger block stone work.

References

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