News this week that scientists have confirmed an ancient sacred well beneath Australia House in the Strand (on the corner of Aldwych) contains water fit to drink. The well, believed to be one of 20 covered wells in London, is thought to be at least 900 years old and contains water which is said to come from the now-subterranean Fleet River. Australia’s ABC news was recently granted special access to the well hidden beneath a manhole cover in the building’s basement and obtained some water which was tested and found to be fit for drinking. It’s been suggested that the first known mention of the well – known simply as Holywell (it gave its name to a nearby street now lost) – may date back to the late 12th century when a monk, William FitzStephen, commented about the well’s “particular reputation” and the crowds that visited it (although is possible his comments apply to another London well). Australia House itself, home to the Australian High Commission, was officially opened in 1918 by King George V, five years after he laid the foundation stone. The Prime Minister of Australia, WM “Billy” Hughes, was among those present at the ceremony. The interior of the building has featured in the Harry Potter movies as Gringott’s Bank. PICTURE: © Martin Addison/Geograph.
The origins of the name of this part of central London, to the west of the City, lie in the fact that the Fleet River runs through the area (albeit, since the 18th century, underground).
Mentioned as far back as the 950s, the name Holborn comes from the Old English “hol” or “holh” (“hollow”) and “burne” or “bourne” (“stream”) and means the “stream in the hollow” with the hollow in this case being the valley over which the Holborn Viaduct was built in the 1860s.
The term ‘Holburne’ was either used to refer to a tributary of the Fleet or part of the river itself. There was a bridge which apparently bore the same name and spanned either the Fleet or its tributary up until the river was covered.
The street now known as High Holborn – the main street in the area – was originally a Roman road and by the 19th century had become a centre for the entertainment industry featuring theatres, restaurants and pubs (including one of our favorites, the Cittee of Yorke).
The street is also home to the Holborn Bar, which marked the boundary of the City of London and was once site of a toll gate – it’s now the site of the Royal Fusilier’s War Memorial.
Other famous monuments in the area include an equestrian statue of Prince Albert – the City of London’s official statue of him – which was removed from its position in the centre of Holborn Circus in the east of the area to a new position on the western side of the intersection during a renovation last year.
Now dominated by offices and some shopping precincts (these include a street market in Leather Lane), among other notable buildings are pre-Great Fire of London survivor Staple Inn (see our earlier post here), churches including St Andrew Holborn, and St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, and, to the east, St Etheldreda’s Church (see our earlier post here) and Ye Olde Mitre pub (see our earlier post here).
The area is also home to the Inns of Court Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn and the Grade II*-listed Prudential Assurance Building (pictured above), constructed on the former site of Furnival’s Inn in the late 19th century/early 20th century, as well as Hatton Garden, famous for being the centre of London’s jewellery trade.
Baynard’s Castle actually refers to two buildings – a Norman fortification demolished in the early 13th century and a later medieval palace located to the east of the original structure. This week we’re looking at the first of those buildings – the Norman fortification.
The first Baynard’s Castle was built in the late 11th century by Ralph Baynard (Baignard) and is believed to have replaced an earlier fortification at the site at the junction of the Thames and the Fleet rivers (the river now emerges into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge).
Baynard (his name may be the origin of the name for Bayswater – Baynard’s Watering place – see our earlier post here), was the sheriff of Essex and a supporter of William the Conqueror.
The castle – which is said to have featured walls and parapets and which is generally said to have been on the waterfront (although some have said it was located inland) – remained in Baynard’s family until the reign of King Henry I when in 1111, his grandson William Baynard apparently forfeited his lands for supporting Henry’s eldest brother and would-be king, Robert Curthose.
It was later passed to the King’s steward Robert Fitz Richard, son of the Earl of Clare, and is known to have been inherited by his grandson, Robert Fitzwalter.
Fitzwalter, however, was a key opponent of King John and as early as 1212 he was in hot water for his part in a conspiracy against the king, although he stated it was because the king tried to seduce his daughter, Matilda the Fair. Either way, he escaped trial by heading to France and John seized the opportunity to raze the castle which he did on 14th January, 1213.
Fitzwalter was later forgiven under an amnesty and went on to play a leading role among the baronial opposition to Kong John – he was among 25 barons charged with enforcing the promises of the Magna Carta of 1215.
The name Baynard’s Castle is remembered in the London ward of Castle Baynard (pictured) which covers the area in which it once stood.