Remembering the 1954 discovery

Oral History Archive

In 1954, tens of thousands of people queued for hours for a chance to visit the uncovered remains of the Temple of Mithras, which had emerged from the rubble of post-war London. Sixty years on, in 2014, Bloomberg and MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) embarked on an oral history project to collect and celebrate the inspiring stories of those who witnessed the historic moment and its aftermath firsthand.

More than 100 people responded to a call to action on BBC Radio 4 to share their memories of the momentous discovery and the impact it has had on their lives. Their stories have awarded archaeologists new insight into London’s greatest archaeological discovery and demonstrate how it captured the imagination of a generation of Londoners.

In 2018, Bloomberg invited the participants back to London Mithraeum to see the restored temple for the first time. Watch the video to see their reactions and explore their stories via the archive below.

Listen to memories of the discovery

Interviews with the visitors

Martin Baker

“Nobody had seen anything like it before, not in London.”

Lisa Benjamin

“We didn’t make a fuss of archaeology then, not like today.”

Martin Biddle

“Over the school holidays I really did go to all the excavations that I knew of that [Professor Grimes] was doing.”

Tony Brighton

“One day [my father] said they’d discovered this wonderful Roman temple in the City and we were going to go and see it – my first ever visit to the City.”

Pamela Evans

“As we got close to the actual site, we suddenly saw this man, holding an object, jump and say ‘We’ve just unearthed the head of Mithras’.”

Dudley Ginn

“Everything had to stop while they excavated.”

Stephen Greenway

“You felt that you were actually living with them, close to them… When you walked off the site you came into the 20th century.”

Molly Grimes

“The crowd were quite happy to chat away and eat their food as they were going along because it was a long time to wait…when we finally got there it was 3 1/2 hours [in the queue] I think.”

Jill Hall

“I felt that I was going to fall in… looking down.”

Mary Harris

“I do remember the atmosphere; there’s something about a dig when something is found, there’s an electric sort of atmosphere.”

Ron Hartnell

“It wasn’t uncommon for one to amble around at lunchtime to see what was going on [amongst the bomb damage]. The Walbrook site was interesting because it attracted a lot of people.”

Margaret Hazard

“The queues just grew and grew and grew for people who wanted to come round and have a look at it.”

Mike Hodgson

“The importance that Mithras had got to the British isles… they had got just a sniff of Mithras cult [before this], but this was a proper Mithras temple.”

Noreen Kent

“I seem to remember the queue going around the block. There were so many people there.”

Peter Marsden

“I thought this was amazing, the discoveries were incredible…then I got the thrilling opportunity of digging on the site so I went back.”

Helen Mawson

“My lasting impression was the crowds and the excitement of seeing, on my part, an actual Roman site.”

Gerry Michaels

“It was remarkable how within a week it was in the newspapers… and thousands and thousands of people came from all over the country to have a look at it, and we thought – we got there first!”

Helen Mitcham

“I was very young and I probably wouldn’t have remembered very much very much at all if it hadn’t been for a little accident that I had when I was there which impressed it very firmly into my memory.”

Eric and Sandra Morgan

“After I’d finished work at the Bank of England, Eric met me and we came up again and we queued for 2 and a quarter hours.”

Dorothy Norris

“We went there actually the day that the head of the god was discovered. I rather fancy that we were only the third member of the general public to visit the site.”

John Shepherd

“I was quite in awe… When you first met [Professor Grimes] you couldn’t read him… I remember being very nervous.”

Ian Silverton

“One day we saw something going on… it hadn’t really kicked off…no one knew about the temple.”

Ken Thrower

“When the Headmaster asked me what I wanted to do when I left school I said: ‘archaeologist, I want to be an archaeologist’.”

Diana Van Rooyen

“Out of the bombing of that building had come really the miracle of discovering this temple.”

Barry Watson

“I was met with queues of people, 3, 4, sometimes 5, depending on the size of the pavement, deep. And I stood there for a while and I thought: I’ll be here ’til midnight!”

Mary West

“I remember my father saying it was going to be covered up… they’re going to rebuild on top of it! That was the reason that there was this rush to see it.”

Tony Worley

“When it was being dug up, it’s interesting to see that, but it’s also interesting to see something when it is finished.”

Photo gallery

Many contributors to the project shared photographs and newspaper clippings from 1954, creating a vivid image of what it was like to experience the discovery first-hand and providing previously lost references that supported the reconstruction.