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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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A Story of Staple Inn on Holborn Hill

Old Holborn was the name I remember from my childhood on the tobacco tins in which my grandfather used to keep his assortments of nails and screws in the garage. The tins were covered with the nostalgic depiction of a timber-framed building in far away London, and little did I realise that the gateway off the busy streets into the familiar quiet courtyard of Staple Inn would one day become as familiar to me as the portal of the family home.

Arthur Tait’s new history of Staple Inn, an extraordinarily enjoyable social history of London, has just been published by the Institute of Actuaries in a most attractive format, packed full of fine photographs and illustrations to chart the history of the much-loved building fronting Holborn which is the Institute’s headquarters.

Arthur, who was secretary-general of the Institute from 1991 to 1997, has invested enormous care in gleaning every nugget of information or folklore from this area of Holborn and tells a tale of a building from its earliest days in the wool trade in the 13th century to the fine restoration of the hall at the end of the 20th.

Le Stapled Halle

The origins are traced back to the first mention in 1292 of le Stapled Halle, probably a trading and merchants’ premises set back from Holborn and likely to have been connected to the wool trade. In a slight leap of imagination, the author takes a link across to the lawyers who used woolsacks on which to sit, in order to draw us to the arrival of the lawyers in England’s ‘third university’ towards the end of the 13th century.

This area of Holborn, situated between London to the east and Westminster to the west, was ideal to the settlement of legal premises, serving both commerce in the city, and church in the west. Seven hundred years later, little has changed. Indeed, a historian would note the proliferation of professional firms in the Holborn area, even as their clients – the banks – move out to the brave new world of Docklands.

Holborn Bars, the area of road outside Staple Inn, was a major link between east and west, at the top of the ‘Heavy Hill’ which Arthur Tait describes with its gradient of 1 in 8 down to the River Fleet, in the time before the Holborn viaduct bridge was built to relieve the congestion. The junction with Gray’s Inn Road was always a huge bottleneck, and the book describes ‘Middle Row’, a row of houses standing down the middle of the wide area of Holborn in front of Staple Inn, with two narrow passages either side for traffic to get in and out.

The familiar black-and-white image

Staple Inn is one of very few such buildings today, the result of a swathe of demolition and rebuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries as commerce expanded. That Staple Inn has survived at all can be traced in part to the consequence of the Great Fire of London, which destroyed almost all such buildings in the square mile itself and led to draconian restrictions on the use of timber in the street front of buildings. Windows had to be set back from brickwork, timber projections were to be removed or covered over, and Staple Inn vanished from sight between the fire of 1666 and the restoration of 1887. A Victorian pedestrian coming down Holborn would have seen a dull plastered building hiding a wonderful history revealed for us today.

Arthur Tait describes in full detail the use of Staple Inn by the Society of Staple Inn, established by 1415 and occupying the new hall rebuilt in 1580–81. A daughter of Gray’s Inn, this inn of chancery was sister to Barnard’s Inn a little down the road, also still surviving. They were in effect subordinate teaching and residential societies, with the hall used for dining and lectures. The link restored in recent years of an annual reading delivered by a lawyer in the company of benchers of Gray’s Inn has been a wonderful way for one profession to forge new links with another.

Fine stained glass

With full colour pictures, the book describes some of the finest stained glass in London, most of which appeared in the 30 or 40 years after the rebuilding of the hall. I cannot be alone in taking my eyes off the speaker or presentation at a meeting of the Institute to gaze at the fine coats of arms and wonder at the history of the people who made this their home so long ago.

Throughout this story Arthur Tait peppers his account with little snippets of British and London history, some clearly and some less clearly associated with Staple Inn itself. We are told of the efforts of local citizens in support of the Parliamentarians in the civil war – the City of London was as strong a supporter of Cromwell but two decades later it seemed to embrace the royal cause once again!

Rebuilding

Major rebuilding took place in the mid-18th century, with new principals donating stained glass once again, but towards the end of its time the Society declined from a learned institution to little more than a club in a rather pleasant part of London. Eventually a Royal Commission concluded that the Society of Staple Inn served no further purpose in legal education and the ten remaining members sold up for £8,000 each – a huge sum in 1884. The builders who bought it proposed ‘stacks of modern shops and offices’ once the old buildings had been demolished, but thankfully Prudential paid sufficient to acquire and restore the buildings and lease them to the Institute of Actuaries, which has made its home there ever since. We can only be grateful to the firm for savings us from the loss of this curious piece of London history, but for those who enjoy such links it is sad that Prudential has but recently (since this book was written) disposed of its interest in the Inn to a property company.

Tales of the 20th century

The book ends with some tales of the 20th century and above all the destruction of the hall in 1944, astonishingly watched as it happened by an actuary, Frank Guaschi, then a young boy. Frank was to take his place as a member of Council in the finally rebuilt Council chamber, next to the hall itself, which few would imagine was not the original were the books not to tell them so.

A rare jewel

Recent adornments of new stained glass, carvings, and Alan Fishman’s monumental tapestry on the east wall bring Arthur Tait’s description to a happy close, with confidence that the profession has a long future in this part of London, which many will have seen from outside but few perhaps appreciate to the full. This fine book would grace the coffee tables of any actuary with a passion for history or idle curiosity about Holborn, and would make a lovely gift (friends and relatives, please note!). Holborn may not be the City of London or Westminster but, spared their pressures and preserved from the ravages of time, it remains a jewel to be discovered, revealed to its best through this fine literary work.

Click here to purchase this book

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