I Spy… Where there be Dragons!

Hasteful MammalThe 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.

London Wall

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.

Armorial Supporters

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:

City of London Coat of Arms
City of London’s 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…


Temple Bar

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.

Temple Bar Dragon
I am a traffic island dragon, hear my traffic roar!

Victoria Embankment

Riverine Reclamation

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.

Embankment Dragons
Embankment dragons
Dragons can apparently be over-trained.

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. 

Repurposed Reptiles

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
High Holborn Dragons
The High Holborn dragons are mere hatchlings compared to their backdrop — Staple Inn was built in 1585 and has survived the Great Fire and (with some damage) the Blitz. It has been both an actual inn and an inn of chancery (a now-obsolete type of law school). Today it is the headquarters of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries.
Farringdon Street Dragon
Farringdon Street Dragon
The Farringdon Street Dragon has lost some colour from its shield. Perhaps it washed off — it would have had wet feet were it erected a century earlier — it is standing in the middle of the River Fleet; this stretch of it was culverted in the 1860s.

The Bridge Dragons

Blackfriars Bridge

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.

Blackfriars Bridge Dragon
A watched dragon never boils.
Southwark Bridge

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

London Bridge

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.

London Bridge downstream dragon
The downstream dragon keeps his beady eye on the great crowds of commuters who cross from London Bridge Station every morning. Mostly, they never even notice him.
London Bridge upstream dragon
The upstream dragon just wants to pop next door for a drink.
Tower Bridge

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

Byward Street

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
Byward Street Dragon
Please do not poke your fingers through the bars; dragons are liable to bite.


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.

Bishopsgate Dragon

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.

Bishopsgate dragon
Cause trouble in there and you’ll be in a pickle.


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.

Barbican Centre

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.

Aldersgate dragon
The dragon is not entirely unhappy to be looking the other way.

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.

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