February 2018: The Middle Temple and the Thames

Situated throughout its existence beside the Thames, the Middle Temple's history has long been bound closely together with that of London's great river, for better or worse. This month we explore the highs and lows of this relationship in detail, from the early days of the Knights Templar to tours of the Docklands in the nineteen-sixties.

The physical nature of the Thames has changed over the centuries, and inevitably these changes have affected the landscape and fabric of the Inn, while bringing disruptions and opportunities for its members. No records of the embankment of the river during the reign of Henry VIII survive in the Inn's Archive, though certain reported incidents indicate quite how much closer the river was to Hall in those days. In 1597/8, the barrister John Davies assaulted his fellow Middle Templar Richard Martin (the 'Prince of Love' discussed in December's edition), with a stick until it broke, ran to the end of Hall shaking his sword above his head, and then hurried down to the river, to carry himself off to Oxford in a boat. He was expelled from the Inn, 'never to return' - though he later found success as a poet and politician and was in fact readmitted in 1601, having become a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.



Account of Davies' escape by river, Minutes of Parliament, February 1597/8 (MT.1/MPA/3)

Until the Victoria Embankment was built, the Inn was directly accessible from the river, via what were known as the Temple Stairs. These were a landing point at the bottom of Middle Temple Lane, which, though small in size, loom large in the history of the Inn, and are shown in many plans and illustrations. It has been said that the Knights Templar erected the first incarnation of this landing place, known then as 'New Temple Bridge'.



Detail showing the Temple Stairs, Middle Temple and Fleet Street from a reproduction of a plan published by Ralph Aggas, 1563 (MT.19/ILL/D8/01)

The Temple Stairs became a popular point of embarkation for anyone travelling from the City of London to Westminster, and when the lawyers arrived in later centuries, this no doubt proved a useful means of getting upriver to the Courts - certainly a superior route to the poorly-maintained, pot-holed Strand. Queen Elizabeth I, having spent a great deal on rebuilding the 'Bridge and Stayers' here, decreed in 1584 that henceforth the expense of maintenance should fall to the two Temple Inns. They also feature in Dickens' Great Expectations - Pip keeps his boat at at the Temple Stairs, and it is from here that he launches his attempt to smuggle Magwitch out of the country.