June 2019: Five Centuries of Keeping the Peace - The Porters of Middle Temple

For centuries, the Middle Temple, its members and guests have been protected and served by generations of porters and watchmen. This month, we look at how these roles have evolved and the often dramatic stories of the men who held these offices over the years.

The earliest reference to a porter in the Middle Temple Archive appears in the Minutes of Parliament for 1587, when one William Carter requested 'certain wages as Porter'. Carter remained in post for twenty years, and in 1589 an order of Parliament continued his pay 'for his pains in keeping the House and keeping the gates locked every night', and in 1602 he was ordered to 'keep the Hall door at dinner, supper and breakfast times to keep out strangers and such as are not of the house'. For his work, he received 55 shillings a year, and was provided with accommodation in the Inn and allowed 'to have the old kitchen'.

Order concerning William Carter’s petition for wages, 24 November 1587 (MT.1/MPA/3)

Carter's successor, Philip Walker, also benefited from accommodation in the Inn, subject to certain conditions: it was ordered on his appointment that 'he shall have a convenient room on the east side of the Temple Gate, provided that he bring not in his wife nor family to inhabit there, and that no victualling, tippling, nor unlawful games be used there'. Evidence suggests that Walker was not always diligent in his duties - in 1614 he was deprived of food from the kitchen 'for his remissness', and threatened with dismissal 'if he do not speedily amend and reform the disorder of company extraordinary standing at the screen at dinner and of beggars in the lane'.

Order concerning Philip Walker’s ‘remissness’, 26 November 1624 (MT.1/MPA/4)

The duties of the Porter were, then, chiefly to keep undesirables out of the Inn and prevent them from harassing those dining in Hall. An order of Parliament in 1652 also names the Porter as one of the officers appointed to carry corpses, and in 1654 a fuller account is given of the increasingly varied role, which required the incumbent to 'industriously keep clean the courts, look to the gate and House, and at least once every night walk about the courts and up every stairs to prevent robberies, which have lately been often committed' and to 'keep out of the House all vagrant people who cry 'milk' or any other thing, not usual and proper to this Society.'

‘The North Side of The Middle Temple Hall’, engraving by William Emmett, 1700 (MT.19/ILL/D/D1/39)

Historical exigencies led to porters taking on more daunting duties. In 1659, the country was plunged into turmoil by the collapse of the Cromwellian Protectorate, leading eventually to the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Evidently this disruption reached the Temple, for in 1659/60 the Porter, John Best, was awarded £5 'as a gratuity for his labour in these times of trouble', possibly in response to his petition for assistance in 'keeping watch and preventing the soldiers from plundering the arms and ammunition, very much desired by many'.