The other week, I went hunting for dragons. I was poorly equipped for such a venture, lacking as I did both lance and steed. I didn’t even have a squire to send ahead to test for draconic, fiery breath. What I did have was a map of the City of London — a natural habitat for dragons, which are drawn to wealth and greed as moths to a candle.
Dragons of London
Wealth & Greed
The City has those qualities in spades and should therefore attract dragons by the dozen. As events transpired, a dozen is exactly what I found (though I believe two further dragons were hiding in their lairs).
Standing Sentry for the City
The dragons in question stand guard over the City’s main entrances and, as is usually the case with London’s quirky street furniture, the human population passes them daily without so much as a first glance let alone a second.
City of London
The City of London is sufficiently ancient that it is actually the oldest continual government in Great Britain. For instance, when William the Conqueror invaded in 1066, one of the first things he made sure to do was to confirm that it could keep all its existing rights and privileges and that it could thus keep on running itself like it always had. It, in turn, recognised him as king.
The City’s super special snowflake status has never gone away, which is why, for instance, it has its very own police force while the rest of Greater London is policed by the Met. And its very own mayor — a Lord Mayor even — who is not the same person as the elected Mayor of London. He’s got a much better hat for one thing.
The City’s square mile largely fits within the boundary wall that the Romans built back when the place was still called Londinium. Since a road that ends at a wall is of little value, the main thoroughfares in and out of the city were marked by gates. None of these gates have survived the demands of traffic flow but their locations are still recalled by street names such as Moorgate and Bishopsgate.
Today, the main roads leading into the city are guarded by dragons instead. These are placed where the ‘bars’ used to be, a bar in this case being a literal barrier: a chain placed across the road some distance outside the walls where merchants would pay the necessary tolls and duties. They were presumably located further out from the gates on account of the very congestion that caused the gates’ demolition in the 1760s.
So why dragons? Well, what better to guard your places of ingress and egress? That sadly isn’t the reason, though; it’s because dragons are the supporters of the City’s coat of arms:
These heraldic dragons make imposing sentinels, clutching in their claws the shield of London, which combines the Cross of St George with the sword that decapitated St Paul the Apostle. But, though the design is in line with the traditions of mediaeval heraldry, the actual statues standing guard are not very old at all. They’re certainly not mediaeval. They don’t even date from the 1760s, when the gates were torn down. Most of them actually appeared in the mid-1960s. Let me show you them…
The oldest of the dragons stands in the centre of the Strand outside the Royal Courts of Justice. Erected in 1880, it marks where the Temple Bar once stood, a short distance east of Ludgate.
Sir Christopher Wren built an arch there in 1666 as part of the necessary redevelopment after the Great Fire of London. This arch was removed and sold in 1878 but was reacquired by the City in 2003 and rebuilt in Paternoster Square, next to St Paul’s.
Temple Bar Dragon
The Temple Bar dragon was erected in place of the arch and was sculpted by Charles Bell Birch (1832-1893). It stands atop a magnificent pedestal designed by Horace Jones (1819-1887), the city’s official architect and surveyor. Jones’s other works in the city include Leadenhall and Smithfield markets.
The next oldest dragons stand as a pair directly to the south of Birch’s dragon, flanking the Victoria Embankment next to Middle Temple Gardens.
The Embankment never had a gate as it was still part of the River Thames when the Romans were building their walls; it was created by Joseph Bazalgette — chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works — in 1870, primarily to house and conceal an intercepting sewer and part of what was then the Metropolitan District Railway but is nowadays known as the District Line.
The Victoria Embankment dragons originally graced the façade of the Coal Exchange, which stood on Lower Thames Street from 1849 to 1962. The Coal Exchange and its dragons were designed by James Bunstone Bunning (1802-1863), who was Horace Jones’s predecessor as City architect and surveyor.
When the Coal Exchange was demolished — amid virulent protest — so that the street could be widened, the Bunning dragons were rescued from destruction. The following year they were mounted atop plinths of Portland stone to guard the City’s boundary where it crossed the Embankment.
The corporation’s Streets Committee, which had repurposed the dragons, looked upon them in their exciting new role and saw that they were good. So good, in fact, that the City needed more like them. And thus, it was decided in 1965 that half-size replicas of the Bunning dragons would be erected at certain main roads into the City. The total cost of these shiny dragon babies would be £2,998.
A Triply-Guarded Gate
A pair of the dragons were erected on High Holborn, directly north of Temple Bar. A third was placed in the centre of Farringdon Street north of the Holborn Viaduct. Both locations mark boundaries that lie a short distance outside Newgate.
High Holborn Dragons
Farringdon Street Dragon
The Bridge Dragons
The southern end of the Fleet was canalised in 1680 and then culverted in 1769 when William Pitt Bridge was opened. If you’ve never heard of William Pitt Bridge, it’s because naming it after the prime minister of the day didn’t stick; everyone knew it simply as Blackfriars Bridge, that being where it was (the area was named for a Dominican priory that had once stood there).
The bridge was badly built and needed extensive remedial work before being replaced by an entirely new one in 1869. It would then have to wait almost a century before it got its dragon.
Southwark Bridge — the next road bridge downstream — doesn’t have a dragon although it doesn’t carry that much traffic either. London Bridge, on the other hand, has two.
The current London Bridge was opened in 1973 and the City took the opportunity to equip its approach with sizeable plinths on which to mount the dragons.
The next road bridge downstream is Tower Bridge, which opened in 1894. Despite being owned by the City of London, it has no dragons because neither end of it is actually in the City — owning stuff outside its boundaries is something the City does a lot. The southern end of Tower Bridge abuts Southwark, just as London Bridge does, but the north end is in Tower Hamlets.
Tower of London
Tower Hamlets is the London borough containing (and named for) the Tower of London, which you may be forgiven for assuming must be in the City. But it isn’t.
Remember how I said that William the Conqueror reaffirmed the City’s rights and privileges? Well that kind of independence made him extremely uneasy. His solution was to build the Tower of London just outside the city walls, ostensibly to protect London from attackers but also not-so-secretly to keep the City in line. Consequently, the City’s boundary lies just to the west of Tower Hill and a dragon duly stands guard in Byward Street, lest the Yeoman Warders invade with a force of angry ravens.
Byward Street Dragon
Aldgate High Street
A little way north of the Tower stood Aldgate and until recently a dragon could be found beyond it, at the eastern end of Aldgate High Street. The Aldgate dragon has gone AWOL, however, perhaps scared away by the noise of urban redevelopment. The Aldgate Project — a plan to revise the road layout there and establish new pedestrian spaces — is in full swing and the traffic island on which the dragon perched has been removed.
Where the Gate Was
A short distance to the west of Aldgate is where Bishopsgate stood, its location now marked by a mitre-shaped sculpture halfway up a modern office building on the corner of Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street.
The street named Bishopsgate extends north from there towards Shoreditch and it is along that stretch of road that the Bishopsgate dragon stands guard. Behind it, in the distance, rises the iconic shape of 30, St Mary Axe, better known to all as the Gherkin.
Draconic Dereliction of Duty
Further west still was Moorgate, a mediaeval addition to the list of Roman gates. Like Aldgate’s, its dragon has also abandoned its duty and is apparently relaxing at the draconic statue equivalent of a health spa, receiving restorative care.
The reason for its temporary removal is the railway infrastructure project known as Crossrail, which will provide a new east-west underground rail link right through the heart of the capital. Given that Crossrail is the largest construction project in Europe, it’s perhaps not surprising if it dislodges a dragon; they just don’t like the noise.
Cripplegate & Aldersgate
The North-western Gates
The final gates were Cripplegate and Aldersgate, the latter not to be confused with Aldgate.
The site of Cripplegate now lies somewhere under the brutalist Barbican Centre — London’s ugliest building according to a 2003 poll — and hence has no dragon.
Our last dragon is therefore that of Aldersgate.
Golden Lane Estate
The Aldersgate dragon stands in the shadow of the Golden Lane Estate, a 1950s housing complex built in the rubble of part of the Cripplegate ward (which had been bombed flat by the Luftwaffe).
Designed by the same architects as the Barbican Centre —Chamberlin, Powell and Bon — the estate is not exactly pretty but as it has been listed (as a prime example of postwar construction), it is there to stay.
So there we are: twelve dragons guarding the boundaries of the City and two others that have taken a holiday. I wouldn’t expect less from the financial capital of the world.