Temple in the Blitz

John Wilson QC reflects on the destruction of the Temple in the Blitz when after the ‘all-clear’ barristers would rifle through the wreckage searching for their briefs and books, their practices as wrecked as their buildings

Before coming up to London to study for my Bar Finals, I had rarely been there. I came for dining nights – I had joined the Inner Temple as a student – but most of those were after dark and I would get the last train out again.

I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the Temple; and of its age and magnificence. I was equally intrigued, however, by the various plaques and inscriptions that you could see as you walked around. There was a plaque to Fig Tree Court which had first been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and then destroyed again in October 1940 by enemy action. There is a plaque lying almost in the centre of Church Court which records that Lamb Building, built in 1667, the year after the Great Fire, was destroyed by enemy action on 11 May 1941. Over the white stucco of Cloisters there is an inscription in Latin which begins with the word ‘Surrexit’ and ends with ‘MCMLII’. ‘Surrexit’ is a word often used in the context of Christ meaning ‘risen again’ or ‘resurrected’. ‘MCMLII’ is a reference to 1952.

I would wander into the Church and look at the effigies of the Knights Templar lying with their legs crossed and their shields held protectively. I wanted to find out more about what happened and thought it would be a very interesting story. I was one of the editors of Pegasus, our student magazine, and I decided to write an article for the magazine. I went up into the galleries of the Inner Temple Library and was able to discover monographs, written by barristers who had been underneath the Blitz in the Temple, and read the stories that they told. They were fascinating but, when I came to look more closely into these events some years later, I discovered that the monographs had all been put into archive. I also discovered that the main historians of the era had apparently missed this source. There is probably an interesting book to be written there for someone who has the time to search through the archives.

The Blitz started in about September 1940, mainly hitting the East End and the Docks. The lawyers in the Temple, being well-versed, even then, in questions of ‘reasonable probability’ had started preparing for air raids some 18 months prior to this.

The Blitz fairly quickly arrived at the Temple. In mid-September 1940 the Clock Tower of the Library was hit by high explosives and the Tower and Staircase were almost completely destroyed. The Benchers’ Smoking Room and the Treasurer’s Room were badly damaged as were the Committee Room and the Ladies’ Room. A few days after this the end of Inner Temple Hall was hit. A high explosive bomb fell through the roof and the Musicians’ Gallery and burst outside the door of the Buttery. The whole of the interior was badly wrecked and enormous damage was done to windows, panelling, furniture and the pictures on the walls. Those in the habit of dining in the Hall were forced to take their meals in Lincoln’s Inn and later in what was then Niblett Hall (and is now Littleton Building). The Niblett Pegasus now has a plaque across the courtyard from the Church.

On that same night, Crown Office Row was badly damaged and a gas main outside shattered so that the escaping gas blazed furiously until it could be brought under control. A little later, 13 King’s Bench Walk was severely damaged and then, on 16 October 1940, there was another massive attack. Barristers would undertake fire watching duties and those not on duty would shelter in the various bomb shelters that had been set up under the buildings and within the crypt of the Church. Incendiaries fell by parachute onto Elm Court and exploded on the roof. The resultant blast and fireball destroyed Fig Tree Court and Crown Office Row completely. After the ‘all-clear’ barristers would rifle through the wreckage of their buildings searching for their briefs and their books, their practices as wrecked as their buildings.

In one of the monographs, a barrister recalled going into Inner Temple Library after a particularly heavy raid, when Inner Temple Gardens were badly hit, and coming across an eerie scene. The glass in the glass-fronted bookcases was all intact and closed but the bookcases were all empty. All of the books were lying on the floor of the library. He worked out that a blast had been so loud and so close that it had blown open the glass-fronts expelling all the books and that in the aftermath of the blast the glass-fronts had slammed shut again.

The Blitz was punctuated by particularly heavy raids. One such was on 29 December 1941. One of the enduring pictures of the time was taken on that evening. It was of St Paul’s Cathedral shrouded in smoke. In that raid the Inner Temple Library was virtually destroyed as was 5, King’s Bench Walk. Barristers and servants of the Inn had worked through the night to try and save what they could but then the water dried up. Apparently, the water pipes had been fractured in the raid. And so the men formed a human chain down to the river ferrying buckets of water up the line to do their best to combat the flames.

There was another massive raid on 8 March 1941 when the Café de Paris was destroyed and a further devastating attack on 16 April 1941. On that night it was as though the Germans were hitting everywhere. The Temple, the West End, Mayfair, the Docks, Islington, Farringdon, Camden and even Kent with places such as Shortlands, Bromley and Beckenham being targeted. There was a massive loss of life that night.

However, for the Temple, the worst raid was probably that which took place on the night of Saturday 10 May 1941, carrying on into the early hours of the Sunday. On that night alone, Inner Temple Hall, Cloisters and the Temple Church were reduced to ruins and Lamb Building, which lay in the middle of them all, was utterly destroyed. London was on its knees. The blackout was not much use when half of the city was in flames. However, by some miracle, Hitler then chose to abandon the Blitz on London and concentrate his fire on Russia. There were no further raids so far as the Blitz is concerned. And London recovered.

Many of the buildings around the Temple that look old are post-war reconstructions. I have seen some of the handwritten quantity surveyors’ estimates for putting things back together again. I have a facsimile of a map of the Temple, given to me by Richard Todd QC of my chambers, which shows just how much of the Temple was either completely destroyed or reduced to ruins. Fortunately, not a single person died within the Temple during the Blitz.

All of the above is a fascinating story but it does not make a novel. I thought, however, that it would provide a very good backdrop for my book, At the Dark Hour, which is largely set during the period described above. It is a story about a number of love affairs and about a treason trial. The central lovers, Adam and Julia (the wife of Adam’s Head of Chambers) communicate by leaving notes for one another in the shield of one of the effigies of the knights in the Church. It is also a story about the antediluvian nature of the divorce laws at that time when, if adultery was proved against a woman she would lose the custody of her children and any hope of proper financial support (as well as having to pay her husband’s costs). The co-respondent would have to pay damages for breaking up the marriage – as though the wife was a chattel, was her husband’s property. There is also passing reference to a libel trial in February 1941 where three literary siblings, whom I call the Renshaws, took proceedings because they felt that their literary reputations were being impugned. This trial took place in the middle of the Blitz whilst bombs were falling. They won. Eagle-eyed readers will have worked out that the Renshaws were a light disguise for the Sitwell siblings who actually did bring this action. Oscar Wilde gave his characters names such as Bracknell and Worthing. Coming from Wigan I decided to name two of the villains of my piece Pemberton and Preston, as neither place is that far from where I come from. So, my story is about love, betrayal and redemption. But the over-arching story is about the destruction of the Temple.

John Wilson QC is a barrister at 1 Hare Court. His debut novel At The Dark Hour is published by Clink Street Publishing (RRP £15.99)

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John Wilson QC

Barrister at 1 Hare Court.