City of London: dragons' den
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Dragons guard the City of London and are to be found on its streets and buildings.
The City of London coat of arms
The City of London's coat of arms can be seen widely across the Square Mile, adorning public and residential buildings and infrastructure owned or run by the Corporation of London, the City's local authority.
The arms are also visible on every street name sign in the City. The historic centre of the UK capital certainly likes to brand itself!
The coat of arms of the City of London consists of a shield with the red cross of St George, patron saint of England. The sword in the upper left quadrant is the emblem of the City's patron saint, St Paul. As a Roman citizen, Paul was martyred by a Roman short sword, a quicker and less unpleasant death than crucifixion.
On top of the shield is a peer's helmet, underlining the rank and status of the Lord Mayor as equivalent to those of a peer or lord. The helmet bears the left wing of a dragon, marked with the cross of St George.
Below the shield, the City's Latin motto reads 'Domine dirige nos', which translates as 'Lord guide us'. (The City of London Guide Lecturers' Association, of which I am a member, also uses the City shield and motto - we all need a guide!)
Either side of the shield, two dragons support the arms, each with the cross of St George visible on their wings. In earlier versions, two lions supported the arms, but the dragons had replaced them by the early 1600s.
It is thought that the dragons may derive from the legend of St George slaying a dragon. In addition to supporting the arms, dragons have come to represent both the City and the protection of the City.
A good place for a close up view of dragons supporting the City's arms is on Holborn Viaduct. The road bridge over Farringdon Street was designed by City architect William Haywood and opened by Queen Victoria on 6 November 1869.
On the outside of the railings on both sides of the Viaduct, the coat of arms looks out over the street below. Pedestrians on the bridge can see the crest (the helmet and dragon wing) and the dragons' heads quite well from the pavement just behind the central lampposts.
City boundary markers
Dragons supporting the City shield stand guard on 10 streets, marking the boundaries of the City of London. In addition, there is one more that has (temporarily) gone missing.
There are two dragons (one on either side of the road) on the Victoria Embankment, at the south end of London Bridge and on High Holborn. A single dragon stands at each of Aldgate High Street, Bishopsgate, Byward Street, Fleet Street, Goswell Road, Farringdon and the south end of Blackfriars Bridge.
The single dragon that once stood on Moorgate was removed when Crossrail construction started nearby and has not yet been replaced.
The Fleet Street dragon, dating from 1880, is the first to stand at a City of London boundary. It also has a different origin, as part of a larger monument. A bronze sculpture by Charles Bell Birch, it stands on top of the Temple Bar Memorial.
The Memorial was designed by Sir Horace Jones, the City of London's architect at the time. He also designed (among other things) the market buildings at Smithfield, Billingsgate and Leadenhall and Tower Bridge.
A stone gate (designed by Sir Christopher Wren) had stood at Temple Bar, the boundary between the Cities of Westminster and London, since the 1670s (it replaced a Tudor gate, but there had previously been a chain across the road way and other forms of barrier since at least the 1200s).
Wren's Temple Bar was taken down to allow for road widening in 1878, but its location was marked with Jones' 1880 memorial. In 2004 the Wren gateway was rebuilt between St Paul's Churchyard and Paternoster Square.
For more than 80 years, the dragon on the Temple Bar Memorial was the only one marking the City's boundaries.
The Coal Exchange dragons
Then, in 1962 a former City institution, the London Coal Exchange, was demolished to make way for a modern office block. Built in the Italianate style in 1847 on Lower Thames Street, the Coal Exchange had above its entrance two cast iron dragons holding the City's shield.
After the building's demolition in 1962, the two Coal Exchange dragons found a new role at the western boundary of the City of London on the Victoria Embankment. Unveiled by the Lord Mayor on 16 October 1963, they arrived in their new location at a time when there had been some adjustments to the City's boundaries.
Visible on the back of each of the shields held by the Victoria Embankment dragons is the name 'Dewer', after the foundry that cast the statues, followed by 'London 1849'.
The design of these two dragons, by the Coal Exchange's architect James Bunstone Bunning, was different from the design of Birch's Temple Bar dragon.
Subsequent boundary marker dragons, installed in the years after 1963, were modelled on Bunning's design. The Bunning dragons are slightly more squat than the Birch dragon. They are made from cast iron and painted in silver and red, in contrast with the unpainted bronze of the dragon at Temple Bar.
The other boundary marker dragons around the City's borders are smaller, at half the size of the Coal Exchange originals, but follow the same template.
Each dragon stands on its left rear leg, with its right leg stepping forward up against the base of the shield. The left foreleg holds the top of the shield, while the right foreleg is held aloft, its talons apparently ready to grasp an intruder. The dragons' wings are adorned with the red cross of St George, their red flame-pointed tongues protruding from between sharp teeth.
Incidentally, contrary to a popular misconception, the City's dragons are most definitely not griffins.
The dragons at Victoria Embankment, High Holborn and London Bridge stand on stone plinths, while those at Aldgate High Street, Bishopsgate, Byward Street, Fleet Street, Goswell Road, Farringdon and Blackfriars Bridge have painted cast iron plinths. All the plinths bear the words 'City of London'.
A tour of the dragon boundary markers
Let's now take a look at each of the dragon boundary markers, starting with the Temple Bar Memorial on Fleet Street, moving clockwise around the City and ending at the former Coal Exchange dragons on Victoria Embankment.
1. Fleet Street (Temple Bar)
The Temple Bar Memorial is just outside the Royal Courts of Justice (which are in Westminster), where Fleet Street meets the Strand.
2. High Holborn
These two dragons are next to Staples Inn.
3. Farringdon Street
The Farrringdon dragon is at the junction with Charterhouse Street, about 100 yards north of Holborn Viaduct, in the centre of the road.
4. Goswell Road
This dragon, more in need of some fresh paint than most of its brethren, stands on the east side of Goswell Road next to the Golden Lane housing estate (the west side of Goswell Road here is in Islington).
This is the dragon that was removed to allow for Crossrail construction. It has not yet resumed its place.
12 February 2022 update: the Moorgate dragon is back, fully repainted and looking as if it has skateboarded back to its place near the junction with South Place! The photos below were taken as I walked past and just before it was finally lifted back onto its plinth.
6. Bishopsgate (Norton Folgate)
This dragon is on the western side of the stretch of road at the north end of Bishopsgate that is actually called Norton Folgate, at the junction with Worship Street.
7. Aldgate High Street
This dragon is on the pavement at the corner of Aldgate High Street and Middlesex Street, outside an office block called Aldgate House.
8. Byward Street
This dragon stands on the south side of Byward Street, looking towards the Tower of London.
9. London Bridge
There are two dragons on either side of the road at the south end of London Bridge, where the City meets Southwark.
10. Blackfriars Bridge
The single dragon at the south end of Blackfriars Bridge is in the middle of the road.
11. Victoria Embankment
The two larger dragons, formerly of the Coal Exchange building, stand on either side of Victoria Embankment next to Middle Temple Gardens. There is also, on the north side of the road, a plaque and relief commemorating Queen Victoria's last visit to the City in March 1900.
A dragons' den
Sculpted dragons do not only act as boundary markers in the City of London. They also appear in many other places within the Square Mile, most notably on the Victorian Smithfield and Leadenhall market buildings.
It is tempting to re-name the City as the Dragons' Den. After all, it is a place where businesses seek funds from investors (in centuries past, kings and queens also raised money there), just like the BBC television programme Dragons' Den.
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