Some Metropolitan Improvements of the last Hundred Years OR one
hundred years the British public have been reading the Spectator. During that century the mechanism of life has changed more than it ever has previously in a like period of the world's history. Even routes, the actual ground traversed in getting from one place to another, have changed, and routes are among the most immutable of human institutions. The great country roads are still the same. A traveller by road from London to Carlisle passes the same places now as he did one hundred or one thousand years ago, but a traveller from Hyde Park Corner to the Mansion House, going by the Mall, Northumberland Avenue, the Embankment, and Queen Victoria Street, traverses ground which, in, 1828 was either covered with bricks and mortar or Thames mud. It is obvious that in the course of the Spectator's 100 years of existence a vast number of new streets have been built where were fields before, but it is not so, easy to realize that a large number of streets in London have come into existence in areas . already built over, and in the process have obliterated streets and routes inunemoriably old. The first divine discontent about routes was felt in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Up till then, what had been good enough for the Bronze Age, for the Romans, ,for the Saxons, and for mediaeval England, was good enough for King George II. and Sir Robert Walpole. But, .the discontent growing worse at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was not good enough for the Regent and Mr. Nash, and. Regent Street from Carlton House to Portland Place was driven through a district thickly built over, and a new route came into being. Pall Mall Fast shortly followed. But both fall outside the century to be dealt with, as does also Trafalgar Square, created by Act of Parliament in 1827. The first important new route opened in the life-time of the Spectator was Cranbourn Street, constructed in 1881 and 1832. Before that time there had been no direct way .from Leicester Square to Long Acre. Endell Street followed in 1840 and 1841. The latter year saw also the completion of a new thoroughfare which it seems impossible to believe has not existed for ever. Up to the year 1837, however, Oxford Street ended at its junction with Tottenham Court Road. If you wanted to goon to the City you had to turn right or left handed and dodge about through small streets till you got into Holborn. In 1837 an Act of Parliament was passed to create a street to be called New Oxford Street which, starting from the end of Oxford Street, was to join Holborn just to the west of the end of Southampton Street. Many of the new thoroughfares made since have been longer and more spectacular, but none has been more useful. In 1845 a body called the Westminster Improvements Commissioners embarked on the creation of Victoria Street, which cut a great traffic artery through a densely populated and slummy district which has not changed very much since. The passing of the Metropolis Management Act in 1855 ushered in an era of great activity in street making. A body entitled the Metropolitan Board of Works was set up. Its proposals had to receive Parliamentary sanction, but when this was granted two-thirds of tin coal and wine duties were allocated towards the cost of the proposed improvement. This system was abolished in 1889. The first very large scheme initiated by the Board was the Victoria Embankment, authorized in 1862 and completed in 1870. The total cost, which was over one and a half millions, was reduced to under £400,000 by the sale of sites. At first the creation of the Embankment proved a disappointment. It was very little used. Except at the Westminster Bridge end there was no satisfactory way into it. It became obvious that an important feeding street must be made from Trafalgar Square. Such a street would require little more land than that which the house and gardens of the Duke of Northumberland covered. Northumberland House was the last of the great river-side private houses. It had been originally built in 1605, but little remained of that period except the centre of the front on to Charing Cross, which was crowned by the celebrated lion with its horizontal tail. A Bill was introduced to expropriate the then Duke of Northumberland, but he succeeded in defeating it. He died almost immediately afterwards, in 1867, and his successor agreed not to oppose the Bill on its reintroduction. The sites of the new street were sold for a sum exceeding the compensation paid to the duke and the cost of making the street. So the public got Northumberland Avenue for less than nothing. The Victoria Embankment was followed by the Albert Embankment, originally constructed to protect Lambeth against floods. Oddly enough the net cost of this scheme was more than double that of the Victoria Embankment. TheEmbankment, from Grosvenor Road to Chelsea, . was carried out by various authorities piecemeal. Grosvenor Road was built by the Government in 1817, and continued from Millbank to Chelsea in 1846 and 1847. The Metropolitan Board of Works completed the scheme between 1868 and 1874. In order to finish off the Embankments, I have forsaken the chronological sequence, and we must go back to the making of QueenVictoria Street,begun in 1863 and finished in 1871. The net cost of this street was £1,076,287, the . most expensive improvement ever carried out in London. High Holborn, with its viaduct, decorated with statuary -which is surely the very worst in London, was begun in 1865 and completed in two years. The imagination can hardly grasp what the present traffic problem of London would have been without the Oxford Street-Holborn, and the Embankment-Queen Victoria Street routes from the West End to the City. In 1869 Hamilton Place was connected with Park Lane, and a slice of Hamilton Gardens—then called on the ordnance survey Wellington Gardens—was thrown into the roadway. Hamilton Place up till then had been a blind alley entered from Piccadilly. During the Peninsular War the Duchess of Wellington lived in Hamilton Place and when the town was illuminated in honour of the battle of Vittoria she decorated the front of her house with a transparency, bearing the inscription, " To the Immortal Companions of Wellington," which was universally admired. The year 1877 saw the beginning of the complete trans- formation of what is now " theatre-land." Acts were passed authorizing the making of Shaftesbury Avenue; Charing Cross Road, and the widening of Coventry Street. The Shaftesbury Avenue scheme, though a very useful one, was little studied from an architectural point of view and has left us the present shapeless and unsatis- factory Piccadilly Circus. As far as Rupert Street the roadway was cut through solid houses. but after that the alignment of King Street and Dudley Street was followed. The avenue took nine years to complete and cost £758,887. The last great undertaking of the Metropolitan Board of Works was Rosebery Avenue, begun in 1885. But before it was finished in 1892 the Local Government Act had been passed, the London County Council had come into being and the Board was abolished. During its thirty-fonr years of existence it greatly improved the traffic facilities of London at a cost infinitely below what it would have been now, and succeeding generations can never be sufficiently grateful for its achievement.
If the improvements carried out since by the London County Council have been less spectacular, this is due to the fact that the Board had really done nearly all that could be done in Central London. But at least one scheme has been carried through by the Council which compares and possibly even exceeds in magnitude any previously carried out by the Government or the Board. This is the Kingsway and Aldwych improvement. A proposal to link up Holborn and the Strand had been made as early as 1836, but the scheme did not take definite shape till 1899, and then only after much consideration and study of various alternative lines. Among the streets which disappeared were Holywell Street and Wych Street. Clare Market ceased to exist as did also the Globe and Olympic theatres and the Opera Comique. The latter is still affectionately remembered by elderly gentlemen as the home of " burlesque," where ladies in daringly exiguous dresses half-way up to their knees, poked fun at Miss Ellen Terry and other stars of the theatrical firmament. Kingsway and Aldwych were finished in 1905 and the net cost after the sale of the building sites, which were not at first taken up with any eagerness, was 2774,200. The last opening of a traffic route in Central London was the linking of the Mall and Strand in 1912. In 1896 the London County Council had promoted a Bill to carry out this improvement and at the same time to enlarge their offices, which were then situated in Spring Gardens. The Bill was thrown out in 1897 and the proposed County Hall made this part of the project out of date. It eventually became part of the Queen Victoria Memorial scheme, which comprised also the widening of the Mall and the lay-out of the semi-circle in front of Buckingham Palace.
Probably the routes in Central London, though they will be and are being widened, have now reached that state of permanence which they seemed to possess in, say, 1750. Small demolitions may take place. Probably in time South Audley Street will be cut through to Piccadilly and a new north and south route to relieve Park Lane will be made.. If new traffic routes are bored through existing buildings they will be like Holborn Viaduct, over not on the ground. The new Charing Cross and St. Paul's bridge schemes both comprise over- head streets. But as a general rule the attention of the present age is concentrated on routes leading out of London. Of these surely one of the most important would be a great road to link London with the Docks. Was it not Mr. Jack Jones who described such a thorough- fare as " The Road to the British Empire " GERALD WELLESLEY.