History of the Barbican Area

The 'Barbican' Name

Where does the ‘Barbican’ name come from?

I came across it in James Joyce's Ulysses (in the first few pages before I gave up again) where Steven Dedalus and Buck Mulligan are staying in a Martello tower (originally built as a defence against possible Napoleonic invasion) and Joyce says: "Two shafts of soft daylight fell across the flagged floor from the high barbacans."

The principal meaning of “barbican” given by the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd Edition) is an outer fortification or defence to a city or castle, especially a double tower erected over a gate or bridge; often made strong and lofty, and serving as a watch tower. Examples they give of this usage are: “The Erle made  … bulwerkes and barbycanys atwene the Toure and the cytie”, Fabian 1494; and “The usual entrance  .. over which he had erected a gate-house or barbican,” Walter Scott, Kenilworth, 1821.

There is no doubt that “barbican” came to have such a meaning, and there is little doubt how the name came attached to the area. The Roman fort which became part of the City wall had towers on either side of the gate, which was later called Cripplegate. But there are competing claims from as far away as Arabia and Persia for the origin of the word itself.

They suggest that Barbican perhaps came from combining two Persian words barbar khanah to mean “house on the wall”, but say they can’t find any examples of such a use.

Not willing to give up on an exotic lineage, they also suggest that the Arabic word barbakh, meaning a canal or channel through which water flows, might have been the source of the loop-hole meaning. Finally, and still firmly in the Middle East, they suggest the Arabic or Persian bab-khanah, meaning gate house, which was regularly used for a towered gateway. However, they concede that it is difficult to get from that to a Latin form of the word.

In fact, there is a source for “barbican” much closer to home. In his Survey of London published in 1598, John Stow writes: “On the west side of the Red Cross is a street called the Barbican, because sometime there stood on the north side thereof a burgh-kenning, or watch tower of the City, called in some languages a barbican.”

This line was continued by Sir Henry Spelman in the 1640s. He explained the name as a combination of “burgh” meaning tower; and “ken” meaning see or watch (as in the folk song “D’ya ken John Peel”).

At the same time, there was some support for the Arabic derivation. In his Britannia (1586), William Camden referred to “an Arabick name Barbican” for a watch tower or military fort.

I would be interested to receive any alternative derivations.

Roman Londinium

The history of the City of London began with the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD. The Romans built a town thirty acres in size on modern Ludgate Hill and Cornhill and called it Londinium. Ten years later the town was burnt and looted by Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, a tribe from East Anglia. But Roman rule was quickly re-established and Londinium was rebuilt on a much larger scale. The Romans used to prefabricate the frames for walls and floors and reassemble them on site, where the resulting buildings were finally plastered and roofed for use. Civic buildings were built of stone and marble and were on a grander scale. By AD 100 Londinium was the capital of the province of Britannia. Eventually it covered three hundred acres, making Londinium one of the largest cities in the Roman West.

During the rebuilding period, the Romans constructed a fort at the north-west boundary of Londinium. It had gates in each of the four walls. It was the gate in the north wall which in later times became known as 'the Cripplegate', and gave this name to the whole area. In the 3rd century AD, the Romans built a wall all the way round Londinium to protect it from the new threat of attack by Anglo Saxon sea raiders. The wall incorporated two of the existing walls of the fort and its towers. Some of this wall is still visible today along London Wall and in St Alphage Garden. (St Alfege was the first English martyr, beaten to death by Vikings for refusing to allow himself to be ransomed). Aldersgate Street takes its name from another of the now-vanished gates in the wall.

The land on which the Barbican Estate is built was outside the Roman City walls. In Roman times, the ground was twenty feet lower than today and it was marshland into which water from the town drained. In bad weather it became a lake dotted with islands.

In 410, the Emperor Honorius withdrew the Roman army from Britain to prop up the disintegrating Eastern borders of the Empire, and Roman rule effectively ended.  Over the next few hundred years, the Romanised Britons were gradually displaced by Anglo Saxon invaders. The invaders were farmers not merchants and the Roman town of Londinium became largely abandoned.

Anglo-Saxon Lundenberg

During the 7th century, the remains of Londinium were at one time or another part of the kingdoms of the East Saxons, the East Anglians, Mercia, and Wessex. During the 8th century, it belonged to Mercia and King Offa (of Offa’s Dyke fame) built a palace here. In the 9th century the town fell to Viking raiders, who used it as a base for attacks inland.

The final change of hands took place when Alfred the Great stormed the town, by now called “Lundenberg”, in about 886. Alfred appointed an Ealdorman to govern the city for him. London quickly grew to be once again the most important town in England. Alfred the Great’s conquest is the last occasion in history when the City of London was taken by force. But it still suffered from Viking raids. Olaf Tryvysson, a Norseman, sailed up the Thames and pulled down London Bridge, for ever commemorated in the nursery rhyme, 'London Bridge Is Falling Down'.

Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo Saxon king, built a new abbey and a palace upstream at Westminster. Westminster developed as a Versailles to London's Paris. Meanwhile Southwark developed separately across the river. All three remained quite distinct towns which did not merge till centuries later.

The Middle Ages

The area which came to be known as 'Barbican' began as no more than a few houses in a marshy area outside the City. But in the Plantagenet period it grew into a defined and populated locality in its own right. In 1336, Edward III rewarded one of his favourites, Robert Brandon, the earl of Suffolk, with the gift of 'the manor of Base Court, in the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate of London, commonly called Barbican'.

For most of the Middle Ages, the main industry of the Barbican was the brewing industry. In 1244 the brewers replaced the Cripplegate at their own cost to allow easier passage for their wagons. The records of St Giles’ church show that there were over seventy brewing establishments in Cripplegate Without. Henry III had the gate pulled down in 1267, after London had supported the barons against him. It was later rebuilt. At one time or another it was used as a warehouse and as a prison. Its final end came in 1760 when the gate was sold to a carpenter in Coleman Street for £91, on condition that he demolished it within six months.

The parish of Cripplegate Without became notorious for the ague in winter and fever or the Black Death in the summer. There were no drains. The occupiers of upper tenements would toss excrement from their windows into the street (with a shout of “gardez loo” to warn people in its flight path). It would be joined in the the culvert which ran down the middle of the street by dead cats, discarded carcasses and bad fish. Hopefully the rain would occasionally wash it all down into one of the main open sewers, such as the Fleet Ditch (once a river, now Fleet Street). The Fleet Ditch – known as the Great Sink of London – became a convenient dump for Smithfield tripe dressers, sausage makers and cat gut spinners to throw their offal. The bodies of suicides were thrown in as well, because they could not be buried in hallowed ground. Whatever did not float away, rotted where it lay. Rubbish heaps or 'laystalls' were common. (Laystall Street in Clerkenwell was named after its most prominent exmple). The rich travelled on horses, and the not-so-rich used pattens – wooden soles mounted on iron rings – to keep their feet above the morass. Street cleaning was performed by herds of pigs which roamed the streets after curfew.

Poor folk lived in tenements or single rooms. The rich, who had houses, used the ground floors for horses and pigs and lived upstairs. Floors were covered with rushes. Rotted rushes decomposed into saltpetre, a constituent of gun powder. Selling their floors was a source of income for poor people, and 'Saltpetre Men' made regular rounds to buy them.

The last improvement to the City wall was in 1476, when brick battlements were added. But after the accession of Henry Tudor and the end of the Wars of the Roses, the walls ceased to be necessary and gradually fell into disrepair.

Writers and adventurers

Two of the Barbican blocks take their names from famous Elizabethan adventurers, who were involved in the race to discover the fabled Northwest Passage to Cathay. One of them, Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539 - 1583) lived in Redcross Street, which is now subsumed within the Barbican development. The other, Martin Frobisher (1535 - 1594), did not live in the Barbican and it would seem that the only connection which justified naming a building after him was that he was buried in St Giles’ Churchyard – but even then, his heart and intestines don’t share the Barbican connection; they were buried in a church in Plymouth. John Speed (1552 - 1629), the renowned map maker and historian, also qualified for a house name by being buried in St Giles’ Churchyard.

Launcelot Andrewes was the local vicar of St Giles church from 1588 to 1604, and he went on to play an important part in the religious arguments of the Counter Reformation period. Thomas More (1478 - 1535), the author of Utopia, was not a Barbican resident. He was born in Cripplegate Within, in Milk Street near Cheapside.

In the early years of the 17th century, the Barbican attracted theatrical types. William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) lodged for several years with the Mountjoy family, who were Huguenot refugees, in Monkwell Street in the Barbican. Ben Jonson (1572 - 1637) had a house in the parish of St Giles.  Jonson’s friend, Nicolas Breton (1553 - 1625), who was a well-regarded writer of his day but now forgotten, lived in Redcross Street.  The City was strongly Puritan and the theatre was not welcome. When in 1600 Edward Alleyn wanted a new theatre, as a home for 'The Admiral’s Men' players, and to compete with Shakespeare’s Globe, he built the Fortune Theatre in Golden Lane, just outside the City limits. John Trundle (1575 - 1629), a publisher of plays, including a pirated copy of Hamlet, operated from the Barbican area.

During Cromwellian times and later, the emphasis was on religious non-conformists. John Milton (1608 - 1674) was one person who seems to have been drawn to the area all his life. He was born nearby in Bread Street. He later bought his own house in Aldersgate Street, which he described as being 'a pretty garden house'. After the Restoration of Charles II, he returned to live in Cripplegate, first in Jewin Street and finally in Artillery Row, and he is buried in St Giles’ church next to his father.  John Bunyan (1628-1688) qualified by being buried at least within shouting distance of the Barbican. He was buried in Bunhill Fields (originally known as Tindall's), an area of semi-rural scrubland where City Road now stands. This became the Non-Conformists’ traditional burial ground. Daniel Defoe was buried there, as were Isaac Watts and William Blake.

The Barbican Estate’s house namers really scraped the bottom of the barrel to name a tower after Oliver Cromwell. As far as we know, he spent just one afternoon in the Barbican in his life – when he got married at St Giles’ church in 1620 (and probably celebrated by smashing the windows).

Poverty, plague, and pickpockets

In Tudor times, the denizens of the Barbican area were far from genteel respectable folk. The drawback of being outside the City wall was that you lost even the little protection from the law which the City government provided. But that was what drew the Barbican inhabitants. They included receivers of stolen goods, silver refiners who would melt down any silver plate that came to hand, makers of fake jewellery and coin clippers (before coins had milled edges). Tanners and skinners, catgut makers, tallow melters, dealers in old clothes, and charcoal sellers were some of the legitimate businesses of the area. Ale and beer houses and gambling joints stood at the edge of the moor. Many ale houses included bear baiting pits. Forgers, professional pick-purses (there were no pockets), thieves, conjurors, wizards and fortune tellers, beggars and prostitutes all found the Barbican particularly congenial. Murders were frequent, but there was no facility for investigating them.

The population was altered by an influx of immigrants. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had given French protestants or Huguenots some protection from persecution as Protestants in Catholic France, many Huguenots fled to England and took refuge in Cripplegate. The Irish also settled in large numbers. It became renowned as the area for gambling houses and bowling alleys. Pillories and whipping posts were standard street furniture. By the end of the 18th century it was the City’s red light district.

In 1665 the Great Plague hit the City. St Giles Church still has the parish registers showing the names of some of the people who died during the Plague. Almost eight thousand people died in the Barbican area, out of a total population of no more than eleven thousand. There were so many burials at St Giles that eventually the surface of the graveyard rose by two feet. Many of the dead were buried in plague pits dug at Crowder’s Well.

During the Great Plague, the Cripplegate clergy deserted the parish. Most non-conformist ministers stayed put. When the church clergy did return, their main concern was to alleviate the unpleasing smell of the hastily buried dead, by tipping quantities of frankincense, rosemary and bay leaves on top of the graveyard. The population drew their own conclusions and there was a considerable move to non-conformist chapels and meeting houses. The Barbican area became the centre for non-conformists.

The next year, the City was devastated again, by the Great Fire. The Barbican and Smithfield were largely spared. In some ways that wasn’t fortunate. New houses in the destroyed areas away from the Barbican were rebuilt in more spacious and luxurious style and the wealthier folk moved out of the cramped and unsanitary Elizabethan tenements which remained in the Barbican area. The area became even more poverty-stricken. Some improvements occurred. The main streets, such as Redcross Street, Whitecross Street and Barbican Street were paved for the first time. Stone slabs were used for the pavement and round cobbles for the roadway.

Fun and games

Beyond the Barbican was the swamp into which the City sewers flowed, called Moor Fields, or “the Great Fen”. Little by little it was drained in the Middle Ages. Moor Gate was created in the City wall to allow traffic beyond the traditional City boundaries into Moor Fields.

By the 17th century Moor Fields had been successfully drained and it became a pleasure ground where people could wander and enjoy entertainments such as wrestling and boxing matches, cudgel fights, jugglers, ballad singers, Punch and Judy shows, and the public whipping of thieves. Samuel Pepys records making visits there. Popular attractions were the lunatics, displayed in cages in The Bethlehem Hospital For Lunatics (or Bedlam, for short) at Moorgate.

In the 18th century the railings round Bedlam became the centre for small businesses. Second-hand bookstalls lined the perimeter of the hospital. Broadsheets were displayed on the railings. Ballads were hung up on lines strung between trees.

For the whole of the 18th century, much of the Barbican remained a slum area. William Hogarth owned a business as an engraver in Long Lane. He portrayed the teeming area in 'Gin Lane'. There were numerous doss-houses full of Irish vagrants who paid a penny a night to sleep on bails of straw, bitten by rats.

In the second half of the century, businesses began to move into the area. In 1750, Samuel Whitbread bought the King’s Head brewery in Chiswell Street, which still operated till a few years ago. His main product was porter, a dark ale recently invented, which took its name from the Smithfield porters with whom it was particularly popular. George III and Queen Charlotte toured the premises in 1787. George Seddon, moved into London House in Aldersgate Street, and set up a furniture business there which soon became the largest furniture-making firm in London, employing 400 apprentices.

There were some civic improvements. There were no street lights. An attempt had been made to provide these in 1684 but the fat used was derived from animals' intestines which didn’t work well. Each house was required by law to light the street in front from dusk till curfew on dark nights, from the second night after the full moon to the seventh night after the new moon, which they did by candles in a lamp. But in the 1740s the City began providing street lighting. This consisted of oil lamps about thirty five yards apart.

Poverty bred unrest. In 1780 the anti-Catholic “Gordon Riots” irrupted into seven days of violence. The homes of Catholics were looted, priests were beaten, and in Golden Lane a tavern and a pawnbroker’s shop were destroyed. The dead bodies were flung into the Fleet Ditch.

Going, going, gone

In 1807, Golden Lane and Beech Street became the first streets (after Pall Mall) to have gas lighting. Road building improved. Round cobbles were replaced by flat stones, and then by asphalt (Swiss rock naturally impregnated with bitumen). But this was generally an era of decline for the area. Over the course of the century, the population dropped from fourteen thousand to two thousand, as people moved to other parts of London.

In 1819, Richard Lambert Jones became a Common Councilman for the Ward of Cripplegate. He is remembered for his successful campaign to establish a Guildhall Library.

In the second half of the century, much of the Barbican area was bought up by the new railway companies for goods terminals. Warehouses replaced houses. Residents moved out. However, electric street lights were introduced in 1893. But the new sweatshops and warehouses were a fire hazard and in 1897 the Great Cripplegate Fire broke out in an ostrich feather warehouse. Much of the Barbican was destroyed. St Giles’ Church was badly damaged.

There is not much to be said about the early part of the 20th century. After the First World War Cripplegate Ward had a population of six hundred and thirty three people.

In 1939 the Second World War broke out. No bombs fell on the City for almost a year. The first bomb fell in August 1940 and destroyed buildings on the corner of Fore Street and Wood Street. A stone tablet in the wall marks the site. On 29th December 1940, the Luftwaffe finished the job. In a single night of incendiary bombing, every street from Moorgate to Aldersgate Street, covering thirty five acres, was destroyed. St Giles Cripplegate was burnt out, only the walls and tower remaining standing. Ironmongers’ Hall survived but Barber Surgeons’ Hall was destroyed. In 1944 Butchers’ Hall was destroyed. In 1945 the last bomb to fall on the City hit Smithfield meat market.

Cripplegate - A Gate for Creeping Through

Barbican is part of the Ward of Cripplegate Without. There were two wards, Cripplegate Within and Cripplegate Without. The original meaning of 'Without' is 'outside' - in this case, within or outside the original City wall marked by the Cripple Gate. This was the gate in the northern City wall between Wood Street and Fore Street where London Wall is today. Its original Old English name was Crypel-Geat, which means a low gate (literally 'a gate for creeping through'). The name was corrupted to Cripple Gate and folk came to believe it had something to do with cripples. Even an explanatory legend was provided: it was said that the body of Edmund the Martyr miraculously cured some cripples while being carried through the gate in 1010. So when a church was built just outside the gate - St Giles' church in the middle of the Barbican - it was dedicated to St Giles, the patron saint of cripples.

Cripplegate Within stretched from Cheapside to the City wall (roughly where London Wall is today). Cripplegate Without was the populated area which grew up outside the wall.  It was only in Elizabethan times that the population of the Outer Ward grew sufficiently to be treated as a separate Ward. Since 1569, the Ward of Cripplegate Without has had two Common Councilmen of its own, but the two Wards still share one Alderman between them, who has a Deputy Alderman to assist him.

London’s Jewish community was centred in Cripplegate Within which was the heart of the City’s emerging banking system. In the years before Edward I banished all Jews from England, there were twenty two banking houses in the City, and ten were in Cripplegate. The area later known as Jewin Street (now covered by Defoe House) was the only place where Jews were allowed to be buried.

St Giles Without Cripplegate

Today, St Giles' is the home of a flourishing church community. It's open most of the day.

The church itself has a long and interesting history. To give an idea of relative importance and population, ten or more churches were built in Cripplegate Within, and just one in Cripplegate Without (the Barbican). It was built in 1090 by Alfune, the Norman bishop of London. He called it St Giles Without Cripplegate, meaning it was outside the Cripple Gate.

The word Cripplegate has nothing to do with cripples, but people came to assume it did, as memory of the original meaning was lost. Dedication of churches to St Giles are often related to places of healing. There has always been a tradition of healing in the vicinity: from earliest times there was a well whose water was said to cure eye diseases. In mediaeval times there was a hospital opposite the church.

The ancient-looking church which survives in the centre of the Barbican complex is not Alfune’s church (as you may guess when you spot the stained glass window containing high-rise office buildings and a lady with a handbag). That church was deemed impossibly unfashionable in the 14th century and, during Richard II’s reign, it was pulled down and rebuilt in the Perpendicular or Gothic style of the day . Building began in 1394. It has been burnt and restored three times since. The first fire was in 1545 during the reign of Henry VIII. As a result, St Giles' looks more Tudor than mediaeval in style.

The church escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, but it was badly burnt in the Cripplegate Fire of 1897. In December 1941 it was burnt by incendiary bombs, and only the walls and tower survived. After the war, it was rebuilt under the guidance of Godfrey Allen. He managed to uncover Henry VIII’s restoration plans, still preserved in Lambeth Palace, so he was able to restore the church fairly closely to its appearance in Tudor times. It is worth remembering that churches like this were bustling places, not museums. It was the Victorians who often distorted the feel of churches with all their brown-stained wood. So one effect of the fire and restoration is that St Giles' has a remarkably light and spacious feel to it; and the simplicity allows you really appreciate the beautiful stone work.

Andrewes House is named for Lancelot Andrewes, St Giles’ most famous vicar.


Smithfield was the area beyond the 'Alders Gate', on the other side of Aldersgate Street and Goswell Road. ('Goswell' was originally 'God’s well', so named by early Christian priests in an effort to stamp out the pagan practice of worshipping wells).

Rahere, one of Henry I’s courtiers, founded a church and hospital there, dedicated to St Bartholomew. The church is the oldest in London. The hospital, St Bartholomew’s – “Bart’s” for short – is still operating.

By the 12th century, there was a horse fair in Smithfield every week, beginning its history as the capital’s livestock market. According to Jonathan Swift, 'a Smithfield bargain' became the proverbial phrase for a sharp deal.

There was an annual Cloth Fair, which became the biggest commercial fair for cloth in England. It was also known as Bartholomew Fair, because its tolls went to support Bart's Hospital. Ben Jonson wrote a play called Bartholomew Fair (1614) which suggested that, by his time, entertainment rather than commerce was the main attraction with 'raree-shows and low farces'. Cloth Fair had one tradition which has survived it: the fair was officially opened by the Lord Mayor ceremonially cutting a piece of cloth – a tradition which has been extended to new public buildings everywhere. (Cloth Fair remains. It is a road behind Long Lane).

As a place for markets and fairs, Smithfield was convenient for public executions. William Wallace was executed there in 1305. Tournaments were held there also. On a darker note, thousands of victims of the Black Death were buried in a huge mass grave under Charterhouse Square.

In the 1855 the sale of live animals was moved to Islington and the cattle market in Smithfield was closed. But by 1868 a new meat market was constructed on the site, where it still operates today. The building was designed by Sir Horace Jones and based on the design of the Crystal Palace. It was extended in 1875, 1899 and 1963. It was completely refurbished to its original Victorian glory in 1993-5.