The 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
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
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
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.
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