|Staple Inn Garden and Courtyard||City of London|
A place for trading in the C13th and C14th, Staple Inn was used by the legal profession from c.1415 until c.1884, and since 1887 has been the home of the Institute of Actuaries. A 'Staple Hall' is recorded here from at least 1292 and it may date from even earlier. Parts of the surviving buildings date from the late C16th when Staple Inn was enlarged, including the half-timbered Elizabethan range facing onto Holborn with an arch leading to the internal Courtyard. The Garden south of the Hall has existed here since the late C16th and today has fountain, flower beds, trees and shrubs. The Courtyard is paved and has a number of mature plane trees, seats and lamp posts; its well and pump provided the water supply to the Inn until the 1930s.
The information shown above was correct at the time of the last update 01/03/2011
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Staple Inn Garden, February 2010. Photo: S Williams
Click photo to enlarge.
The 'Staple Hall' or 'Le Stapled Halle' in Holborn is recorded from at least 1292 and it may date from even earlier, the name deriving from the 'Staple', a duty on wool introduced in 1275, and 'halle', the French word for a covered market. Its use for trading, in a number of commodities but particularly in wool, flourished in the C13th but began to decline from the 1350s, and was at an end by c.1375. The subsequent use of the site by the legal profession dates from c.1415 when the Society of Staple Inn was established. At that time the word 'Inn' meant a house or place to reside. Staple Inn became the largest of the Inns of Chancery. Its lawyers and students formed the Grand Company and Fellows of Staple Inn, which was closely associated with Gray's Inn (q.v.), one of the Inns of Court. In 1529 the Benchers of Gray's Inn purchased the land where Staple Inn stood although no rent was charged, and it was not until 1811 that the Society of Staple Inn acquired the freehold for £16,000. Another Inn of Chancery that Gray's Inn acquired was nearby Barnard's Inn (q.v.), which like Staple Inn still stands today. Further land by the old Staple Inn hall was purchased in 1580 and a new Hall was built on the site by the wealthy Fellows of the Society, possibly sponsored by Richard Champion who was Principal Fellow in 1580-83 and whose arms are carved in a corbel in the Hall's roof.
The new Hall was similar in layout to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. There was a passage at the end of the Hall leading from the open courtyard to the garden, and a kitchen was on the other side of the Hall. By 1586 it was an Inn of Chancery, providing training for students of law. In 1586-9 a new range of buildings was built on the road front, thereby closing off the hitherto open courtyard from Holborn; houses on the west of the courtyard were also built in the mid-1580s and Nos. 9 and 10 were built in 1597 on the site of the old Hall. A well and pump in the courtyard provided the Inn with particularly pure water from underground springs, reportedly having medicinal qualities. This was the main water supply until 1922, when the well was filled in, as recorded on a paving stone in the courtyard, its site initially marked by a tree. The garden south of the Hall was at one time rented by the renowned herbalist and barber-surgeon, John Gerard (1545-1612), where he grew the rare plants collected from myriad sources, which were recorded in his famous 'Herball, or General History of Plantes' (1597).
In 1666 Staple Inn escaped the Great Fire, as a result of which new building regulations came into force that required the timber buildings overlooking Holborn to be faced with fireproof plaster, which remained covering the timbers until 1887. Much of Staple Inn was rebuilt from 1729 onwards, apart from the Hall and the buildings fronting Holborn, and the south door facing the garden from the Hall dates from 1753. In 1756 a fire broke out in the Court at No. 1 Staple Inn although the Hall was undamaged. As a result a number of rooms were rebuilt in 1757, at which time two additional faces were added to the clock on the Hall, one facing onto the garden and another onto the courtyard. By 1800 the number of students had decreased and new regulations of the Inns of Court meant that Staple Inn had become essentially a social club for those who occupied chambers. The common areas were apparently very well-kept and the garden provided a pleasant amenity for adults and children alike. It was planted with flowers, shrubs and trees, including a large fig tree that covered most of the Hall's south side, and a pond. An article in 'The Morning Post' in 1930 claimed a large carp observed in the pond might be a remnant from Tudor days, until it was revealed that children at No. 6 had moved the contents of their fish tank to the pond for the summer some 16 or more years before. The courtyard was also planted with flowers and shrubs and Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing in 'Passages from the English Notebooks' (1855), described Staple Inn's seclusion: 'In Holborn I went through an arched entrance, over which was 'Staples Inn', and here likewise seemed to be offices; but in a court opening inwards from this, there was a surrounding seclusion of quiet dwelling houses, with beautiful green shrubbery and grass plots in the court, and a great many sunflowers in full bloom.'
The Society of Staple Inn was eventually dissolved in 1884 and the site was sold to a firm of builders, G. Trollope and Sons for £80,000. They sold Nos. 11 and 12 Staple Inn, which overlooked the garden from the south, to the Commissioners of Works and Public Buildings in June 1886, and later the same year a public auction was announced to sell the rest of the site, provoking impassioned public outcry against the loss of these historic buildings. The auction took place in November when the successful bid of £68,000 was that of the Prudential Assurance Company, who had occupied the distinctive offices designed by Alfred Waterhouse across High Holborn since 1879. Waterhouse was given the task of restoring Staple Inn to good order without losing its essential character. The Prudential also purchased the site next to the old buildings and built the new Staple Inn Buildings, also designed by Waterhouse. A plan of Staple Inn of 1886 shows the site layout with plane trees in the courtyard and the garden laid out with lawn, beds and paths. It also indicates a garden area in the south-east that formed part of the land sold to the Commissioners of Works and Public Buildings.
Since 1887 Staple Inn has been used by the Institute of Actuaries, which had been established in 1848, who initially leased the Hall for £250 p.a. as a meeting place and library for its members. In 1910 the Staple Inn Actuarial Society was founded, originally as the Institute of Actuaries Students' Society. Its original objectives were to assist students in preparation for actuarial exams and to provide a forum to practice public speaking. The Society has evolved to become a body arranging a wide variety of activities both professional and social. These are designed to appeal primarily to students and recently qualified actuaries. The Society has 5,500 members throughout the UK and overseas. The buildings that remain today dating from the late C16th and the C18th include the half-timbered Elizabethan buildings onto Holborn that Nikolaus Pevsner described as 'the most impressive surviving example in London'. These were restored by the Prudential in 1936. The site suffered some bomb damage in WWII, including incendiary bombs that landed on roof-tops and in the Courtyard, but in 1944 a German flying bomb landed on the garden on the south side of Staple Inn, according to the Porter 'near the Goldfish Pond'. Part of No. 1 Staple Inn that overlooked the garden and housed the Actuaries Committee Room was destroyed and the Hall was badly damaged, its roof collapsing. The 'lovely garden' was ruined and according to the Porter, to get into it 'was like climbing up a mountain'. The Hall was eventually restored in 1954 as closely as possible to the original design, the work undertaken by architect Sir Edward Maufe and the building firm of Sir Robert McAlpine. A remnant of Elizabethan carving was unearthed during the reconstruction of one of the bomb-damaged buildings in the courtyard, and has been incorporated into the fireplace of the Council Chamber. A replica of the fountain was restored to its place in the garden, which was soon overlooked from the south by the rebuilt wing of the bomb-damaged Patent Office, a building described by Pevsner as 'a ruthlessly utilitarian section in nasty cheap cream brick'.
The Hall was refurbished once more in 1996, and was re-opened by the Lord Mayor in February 1997. Although somewhat dominated from the south, the formal ornamental garden remains a most pleasant amenity, slightly sunken from the ground level of the adjoining pavement, from which it is separated by fine railings and gates. The layout today consists of a lawn, with a fountain surrounded by flagstone path and a circular bed of roses and other planting. At the garden's perimeter are flower beds, a number of trees and shrubs, with a path running alongside the building, leading from the rear entrance to the Hall to the archway from the Courtyard. The Courtyard has little changed over the years, remaining crossed by cobbled paths one of which leads to the main entrance via the arch from Holborn, with a number of trees, seating and lamp posts. Unlike many historic courtyard spaces, including those in the Temple nearby, it has survived car free, apart from a short period during the General Strike of 1926 when car parking was permitted. A notice remains in place: 'The PORTER Has Orders To Prevent Old Clothes Men & Others From Calling Articles For Sale. And Rude Children Playing &c. No Horses Allowed Within This Inn.'
Simon Bradley & Nikolaus Pevsner, 'The Buildings of England, London 1: The City of London', 1997 (1999 ed.). For further sources see History of Staple Inn: Some Further Reading on www.actuaries.org.uk; 'The Old Hall Staple Inn', Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 31 March 1945, pp151-153; Arthur Tait, 'A Story of Staple Inn on Holborn Hill, (The Actuarial Profession, 2001)