City of London
leisure &
City of LondonOur servicesBarbican EstateHistory
History of the Barbican Estate

St Giles CripplegateThe name of the Barbican comes from the low Latin word Barbecana which means an outwork. Gradually the meaning changed, along with the pronunciation, to identify a fortified outpost or gateway, such as an outer defence to a city or castle and any tower situated over a gate or bridge which was used for defence purposes. Today the City of London has its own replica of a fortified gateway in Aldersgate Street.

The Barbican Estate is situated on the northern edge of what was roman Londinium. Indeed, many of the surviving examples of the old London Wall are to be seen preserved in the Barbican Estate, making a fascinating link with the past.

The present-day blocks and towers are named after people who had strong connections with the City. Click here to read about them.

The wall as we see it today is to a great extent composed of Tudor bricks, as the practice at that time was to use existing foundations rather than dig new ones each time another building was erected. Thus the wall was put to much hard usage long after its role in defending the City had ended.

The area of the Roman town was approximately 325 acres. In Saxon times the City incorporated a girdle of land outside the wall which brought it up to 677 acres. This was the size of the City at the time of the Norman conquest and still approximately the area of the City of London today. The original Barbican of this period was probably situated somewhere between the northern side of the Church of St Giles Cripplegate and the YMCA hostel on Fann Street.

St Giles is associated with the Cripplegate entrance to the City. However, the word Cripplegate is a corruption of the Saxon word crepel which means a covered way (this covered way led from the City Wall out to the Barbican). Exactly when the word was changed from crepel to Cripple or how the association with cripples came about, is not known - it seems logical to suppose that if there was cover at this gateway it was a more comfortable place for cripples to go to beg for alms than an entrance more exposed to the elements. Cripples may also have been attracted by virtue of the fact that St Giles is the patron saint for cripples, blacksmiths and beggars.

The Church of St Giles Cripplegate

is thought to have had its origins at the end of the 11th century but was burned down around the middle of the 16th century. The present building is one of the few churches to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666; it was re-faced in 1665 and the top of the tower was added in 1663. One of the largest of the pre-fire churches, it was modernised during Victorian times. In 1940 the church was bombed and subsequently damaged by fire when the roof and interior were completely destroyed, though many of the church records were saved and now can be seen in Guildhall Library .

St Alphage’s Church

is a charming little relic situated on London Wall. A 14th century monastery, it was believed to have vanished entirely until bombing in 1940 revealed that it had been used as the foundation for a later building. It is interesting to speculate whether its use as a foundation saved it for posterity or eroded its structure. Tthe remains have stood up unusually well considering the tools and materials at the disposal of the original builders. Interestingly, it is largely built of flint - not a building material readily available in the area of London. It may have been imported from the Chilterns and Thames Valley, or perhaps at once there were limited flint resources in this area, long since used up.

To find out more about the early history of the City, visit the Museum of London .

By 1851 the City was composed of high dark buildings and narrow streets with very little room for the horse-drawn traffic that struggled through them. Above all it was overcrowded - the population of the City was 1,287,000 and the number of people living in the parish of Cripplegate (the area now occupied by the Barbican) was 14,000. The Cripplegate area was largely occupied by the ‘rag trade’ - anything to do with the buying and selling of cloth or tailoring and dressmaking.

Soon the advent of railways gave the more affluent City workers the opportunity to move their homes to the expanding suburbs and thus the first commuters came into existence.

During the 1939-45 war the City suffered appalling damage and loss of life. The Cripplegate area was virtually demolished and by 1951 the resident population of the City stood at only 5,324 of whom 48 lived in Cripplegate.

Discussions started in 1952 on what sort of redevelopment should take place on the devastated site. This gave the opportunity to many people involved with the City of London Corporation and the City to voice their concern at the dwindling number of residents living within the Square Mile, and to consider ways of attracting a more stable population. Following these discussions the Court of Common Council of 19 September 1957 accepted as a matter of policy that there should be a genuine residential area created on the site.

The Barbican site, which covers 40 acres, had been mostly cleared by bombing but there was still much work to be done. A new site had to be found for the electricity sub-station which had been situated in what is now Beech Street. The clearance offered unusual opportunities to simplify the maintenance of essential services to the Barbican. All electricity cables, telephone wires and the Garchey waste disposal systems are routed through three miles of underground passage, making them easily accessible when repairs are needed. It was also necessary to cover over the underground railway between Barbican and Moorgate stations. The line was straightened and a double roof allows a large air gap to assist insulation from noise.

Great care has gone into the design of the Barbican. One of the features is the continuity afforded by the gardens and lakes which, at the same time, give almost complete individuality to the blocks of flats throughout the Estate. Every block has its own particular landscaped outlook as well as many different types of flat. Click here for more about the City's parks, gardens and open spaces .

The whole estate has been designed to resemble a small walled town which helps to provide both privacy and a protection from noise. To offset the high cost of land there is a very high concentration of buildings, the Barbican has a total of 2,014 flats. However, there is still a considerable sense of openness due to careful use of space. For example, taking into account the various levels of car park space, the podium area, the gardens and the building space itself the total pedestrian area of the Barbican is nearly twice the actual size of the site.

The Barbican site includes the Barbican Centre, which was opened by Her Majesty The Queen in March 1982. Almost the whole of this structure is underground, making it a complex and interesting building structurally. Indeed, the only part of the Centre which is visible is the fly tower for the scenery from the theatre and the conservatory which surrounds this at podium level.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, situated beside the arts centre, is another interesting building whose honeycomb structure provides air space between each practice room for sound proofing. Its theatre has completely mobile seating so that the stage can be any size or in any position. It also has a fine performance hall and library. Visitors are welcome to watch student performances and programmes are available each term from the school.

The City of London School for Girls enjoys a beautiful position, virtually in the churchyard of St Giles, straddling the lake to the east side. Gardens lie on the west side, equipped with swimming pool, tennis courts and play area.

The bases of the tower blocks and various units about the podium area provide space for commercial premises.

A copy of The Barbican - Sitting On History , £4.50, is available from the main Estate Office.

City of London logo
[Legal notices]
[Privacy statement]
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional