Kent Archaeological Review 1969 –

Roman Whitehall ? City of London Emergency Excavations
Completed by Brian Philp

The major emergency excavation started last October, on a large building site in what was the centre of Roman London, was eventually concluded in March (KAR Number 15, page 24). It had been hoped that the excavation, sponsored by the Guildhall Museum and Ministry of Works, might last for about four weeks, but it was found possible to extend operations for a period of five months. The developers (City of London Real Property Ltd), main contractors (Harry Neal Ltd), sub-contractors (Willment Ltd) and Barclay’s Bank must all be congratulated for their interest, support and active encouragement. Happily by the end of the archaeological excavation the building-work was ahead of schedule.

The results fully justified the enormous amount of effort involved and the large contingent of Kent archaeologists, who formed the backbone of the operation, can be congratulated on a major contribution. Of these Mr J A Willson played the most important role, acting as full-time supervisor for four months. Of the part-time supervisors Alan Gidlow (Faversham), Tony Rook (Lockleys), Cliff Ward (Otford), Ralph Mills (Sittingbourne) and John Parsons, Howard Davies, Mike Kellaway and Gerald Clewley (CIB), deserve special mention. Of the diggers Tom Ithell (Medway), Jim Williams (Springhead) and Messrs Fendt, Garnett, Norris, Tedbury (all CIB) and Misses Bartlett, George, Harman, Mynott and McGarry (also all CIB) made important contributions. The CIB headquarters was defended even during its demolition and only surrendered finally when suitable, but slightly less commodious accommodation (only one floor and no lift or hot water) was found nearby. Of the great mass of evidence and material from this site relating to much of the 1,900 years of London’s history, three phases are of particular importance. All relate to first century Roman Londinium.

Firstly, the alignments of walls and buildings destroyed by the Boudiccan fire of AD 60-61 were eventually traced as were related roads. The buildings were clearly large, rectilinear in plan and possibly of two storeys. The roofs were tiled though no evidence was found to suggest glass windows. In one place the collapsed walls and roof sealed a group of domestic pottery and a large piece of a Mayen lavastone quern. Elsewhere, a wall was found to have been plastered on four occasions prior to the fire. It now seems clear that the centre of Roman London followed a fairly formal pattern even prior to AD 60 and it is important to note that similar evidence was found by Professor Frere at Verulamium in 1959 (Ant. Jnl. XI (1960), 18).


Excavation plan


The second and perhaps the most interesting aspect of the site concerned the great Roman building known to be in the Gracechurch Street area. This seems to have been built after the fire, perhaps at about AD 61-65. A small section of its north wall was recorded by Henry Hodge in 1881-2 and the complete north-east corner was excavated by Mr F Cottrill in 1934. A section of the west side was found by Cottrill in 1935 and Adrian Oswald recorded some walls relating to the south-west aspect in 1939. Peter Marsden found two more walls in 1963-4 and was able to link these with the complex east of Gracechurch Street. It was suggested that all these various walls were related to a single structure and further proof was sought on the present site. Happily more than 100 feet of the building was excavated and the complete plan of the south-east corner recovered, showing at least two periods of construction. For the first time something like an overall plan can be attempted and this gives a building with a length of about 340 feet and a width of about 200 feet (Figure 1). What can be seen is a vast masonry multi-roomed structure, no doubt incorporating courtyards and certainly corridors. The entrance, almost certainly in the centre of the south side, coincides roughly with the centre of the later forum and suggests that the very early planning dictated the planning for later centuries. It seems that this palatial structure must have been the principal building in London during the first century and it clearly occupied a dominant, central position. Ralph Merrifield has suggested (Roman City of London (1965), page 140) that this was a public building of some sort and the general absence of refinements tends to suggest that it was not a palace. Perhaps this was the “Whitehall” of Roman London and it seems likely that Julius Classicianus may have had his office in this building. His tombstone, found in two parts in 1852 and 1935, records that he was “Procurator of the Province of Britain” and it seems that he died at about AD 70. The plan shown is a tentative reconstruction for the benefit of those volunteers who worked so hard in bad winter conditions helping to uncover the buried walls. At the same time anyone who can offer parallels or an alternative reconstruction is asked to communicate with the writer. It seems possible that a small part of this building may yet survive in the Gracechurch Street area though its foundations extend to a depth of about 23 feet beneath modern street-level. What is clear is that this palatial Government building was eventually demolished to make way for the forum, probably at about AD 100. Looking at the relative positions of the two buildings it seems highly probable that the forum was in fact designed to fit round the earlier building. Ralph Merrifield has suggested that it would be unlikely that the earlier one would have been demolished until its replacement was ready and this could explain why this particular design was followed. Indeed it seems possible that the basilica, west and east ranges of the forum were built whilst the earlier one was still in use and that the demolition of the “Whitehall” building coincided with the start of work on the south range of the forum. A report on the excavation, together with plans and sections will be prepared for publication.


The full report was published in 1977: The forum of Roman London: excavations of 1968-9. Britannia 8. Vol 8, pp. 1-64.

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1 comment

  • Comment Link Graham Dawson Tuesday, 16 November 2021 10:56 posted by Graham Dawson

    Archaeology in Southwark did not start with the formation of the Southwark Archaeological Excavation Committee in 1962. Between 1945 and 1947 Surrey Archaeological Society organised a series of excavations on bombed site in Soutwark directed by the famour
    archaeologist Katherine Kenyon assisted by a young Shepherd Frere. As with Grimes in the City they had to find sites with empty
    cellars having even less resources than Grimes did and there is a story that Frere, while searching for useful sites was arrested for his suspicious actions (it was just after the war).

    The excavations concentrated on the Roman period, not surprisiomgly, and were published b y Surrey as Excavations in Southwark c1960. All are long since dead and I have no personal knowledge of the events since I did not come to London till the 1960s

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