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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Old Holborn

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 158081. A
daughter of Gray’s Inn, this inn of chancery was sister
Old Holborn
A new history of Staple Inn has just been published. Peter Tompkins finds it to be ‘an extraordinarily
enjoyable social history of London’.
Peter Tompkins is a City of
London guide, as well as a
fellow of the Institute of
Staple Inn front houses on Holborn in 1854 the fireproof plaster covering was a
221-year legacy of the Great Fire of 1666 that Staple Inn had just escaped
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!
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.