The hidden history of the City wall

By meriel jeater on 15 Nov 2012

By Meriel Jeater, Museum of London Curator

Here is a brief snapshot of some research I have recently undertaken to understand the evolution of London’s city wall. A section of the Roman city wall still survives in a garden outside the Museum of London. I mention these remains on my tours of the Roman fort gate, which still exist in a room next to the London Wall car park. It is sometimes tricky to explain to visitors why the wall, while having Roman origins, is made mostly from Victorian brick and includes two medieval towers. The short answer is that over the centuries, as London’s population outgrew its ancient city wall, buildings were built up against the wall, gradually hiding it from view. Then in WWII, large areas of the City of London were destroyed or damaged in The Blitz. After the war the ancient remains of the city wall were uncovered in the rubble. The Roman foundations of the city wall still exist in several places at ground level but the wall above them is actually medieval or more modern.

I discovered that the section of city wall, next to what is now the Museum of London, had been integrated into a line of Victorian warehouses and shops, which explained the brickwork now visible. These were bombed in the 1940s and pulled down after WWII.

Modern view of the garden on London Wall

This is the current view of the garden with the remains of the city wall. The tower in the foreground is one of a set of medieval towers added to the city wall in the 13th century. Notice that the interior of the tower is now made from brick, which was added when it became part of the Victorian structures.

I always wondered what these shops looked like before they were wiped out so I could compare that with the view today. I hunted through the Museum’s image collection and through the many maps in the Museum of London’s Library to see if I could find out more. Here’s what I found…

OS map 1894-6

This is a detail from an Ordnance Survey map of London, dating to between 1894 and 1896. It shows the area as it was before the bombing raids changed it completely. Where the Museum of London now stands was a street called Castle Street. If you study the map you can find Castle Street, lined with shops. You’ll also see a dotted line at the back of the shops on the right-hand (east) side of the street – this is the line of the ancient city wall. These shops enclose the city wall entirely – the city wall has become their back wall. You can also see the words ‘REMAINS OF TOWER’ amongst these Castle Street buildings. This is the medieval tower from the foreground of the garden photo.

Goad map 1925

I found another map from 1925 which noted all the numbers of the buildings on Castle Street. It showed that the building that had enclosed the medieval tower was number seven.

Number 7 Castle StreetBy kind permission of the Commissioner of the City of London Police

I searched the Museum’s object database to see if we had any photographs of Castle Street and this photo turned up. It shows Castle Street after The Blitz. If you look closely at the shop fronts you can see the building numbers – the shop in the centre of the picture is number seven. This is the shop that had the medieval tower inside. The back wall of all these shops was the city wall. I was very excited by this discovery. I can now stand by the city wall during my tours and hold up this image and show visitors the huge changes that have occurred in the area over the last century.

Fort Gate tour

Here I am giving a tour of the remains of the Roman fort gate, which would have been part of the city wall. These were discovered during excavations in 1956. Parts of these remains (mostly obscured by the tour group standing in this photo) were found underneath what had been a gentlemen’s urinal in the centre of Falcon Square at the south end of Castle Street. Have a look at the Ordnance Survey map of 1894-6 to see if you can spot it.

To find out more, come along on a tour of the Roman fort gate remains on the third Friday of the month. Details are available on the Museum of London website.


3 thoughts on “The hidden history of the City wall

  1. Colleen Franklin says:

    Wow! Love the history of England. Next visit will come to London and look you up. Last visit we spent 5 weeks around Manchester, northern Wales, Hadrians Wall. We had fun searching for adventures, and had many. I recon we could spend 5 weeks in the greater London area no trouble. Great work.

  2. Margaret Yeats says:

    Fascinating research, what amazing survivors these remains are.

  3. Elise Fleming says:

    Just found your blog and am endeavoring to read it “backwards”. Wish I had known about the tour when I was in London. Next time, perhaps?

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