Edwardian Story Of London

Edwardian London VI: The Strand

In 1905 the Pall Mall Magazine published a “little book [which] will appeal to all who wish to possess what is really a portfolio, in a handy form, of beautiful drawings and photographs of the marvellous New LONDON which is rising up around them day by day.” The first part of the guide was effectively a guide book for the Londoner and the visitor alike, but a guide book with a difference, as it includes architect’s drawings of the many new buildings and streets which were still at the planning stage. Our guide now takes us for a trip along the Strand, moving westwards from Fleet Street. We see the many changes taking place in the topography of this part of the metropolis and hear about a proposed bridge that never got built.”

The Busy Strand:
Charles Lamb, in one of his minor essays, quaintly said, “The man must have a rare recipe for melancholy who can be dull in Fleet-Street,” and what held good of Fleet-Street eighty years ago holds equally good of that thoroughfare to-day, and of the Strand as well. Either of them has essence and incident enough to set a distinctive stamp upon a whole town, and through they are inseparable to our minds, they are vastly divergent in their character. The one is homogeneous, ink-stained, and eternally preoccupied; the other is cosmopolitan, leisurely, gossipy, shoppy, full of unsurfeited observation, and almost Parisian in its passion for the lighter side of life. At one end of the Strand, where it is besieged by the Temple and the Courts, you rub shoulders with hawk-eyed barristers in gown and wig, and sharp solicitors, in the sober garb of every day.Further west you encounter stray caravans of fruit and vegetables, flowing in from Kent and surrey, by way of waterloo Bridge, towards the “Garden.” Westward, again, you drop into the thick of piety, for it is a busy day of prayer at Exeter Hall, and the pavement is strewn profusely with text and tract. At the corner of Bedford-street, where the theatrical agents most do congregate, you jostle among briefless tragedians in mufti, and flaxen-haired comediennes in flaunting hats.Further still, the throng grows more miscellaneous, especially towards evening, and out of the great trek westward there resolve themselves two main elements – playgoers, forming en queue for the evening programmes a the Tivoli or the old Adelphi, and timely passengers off from the Continental night mail from Charing Cross station. And as for the bustling succession of crowds that impede one’s egress into Trafalgar-square, it is much the same as it was in centuries that knew not General Gordon, or Landseer of the lions, or Nelson even; and Dr Johnson came very near the lasting truth when he said “The tide of human life ebbs and flows at Charing Cross.”A drawing of the building at 230 Strand.A bit of the old Strand.The Strand seems to renew itself rather faster and less noticeably than any other of our thoroughfares. The Golden Cross Hotel, immortalised in “Pickwick,” has put on a new and more modern exterior; and the Lowther Arcade has disappeared in favour of new and palatial offices (designed by Mr. MacVicar Anderson) for Coutt’s Bank, from across the way. Then there are several new minor features, largely due to the never-ending invasion of new restaurants, before we emerge upon the monumental block of the Cecil and the new Savoy. The first undoubtedly suffers from the unrelieved flatness of its façade, and a mixture of materials, when another couple of thousand pounds would have ensured the uniform use of good Portland stone, instead of a recourse to the meretricious use of red brick by way of false relief. The courtyard is imposing, somewhat in a formidable way, but very few buildings so impress the visitor with a sense of amplitude and security.The Savoy, again loses part of its due effect by the use of terra cotta, but its style is refined, graceful and inviting to the eye, full of the new spirit of architecture and altogether distinctive in the impression it leaves on the beholder. Very few great buildings n the mass have been so well broken up, or with so much advantage in the way of light, cleanliness, and ventilation. It is the work of Mr. Colcutt, and an eminent example of the new gospel of taste in the way of hotel architecture and decoration. It is, indeed, a lesson in London’s summary and indiscriminate dealings with history, to make the tour of the Savoy, and then after leaving this magnificent new hostelry. To come suddenly upon the precincts of the old Savoy, which carries us back five centuries at a glance.It is gratifying that so many of the old landmarks in and about the Strand have withstood the flood of modern enterprise and alteration – the quaint old Water Gate, for instance, at the foot of Buckingham-street, where it nestles under the old Adelphi Terrace, with its memories of Garrick and turner, and many other London worthies. Another couple of relics in this neighbourhood which the County council has preserved are 17, Fleet-street, and 230, Strand, both of them types of the old gabled and heavy-browed style of house which so abounded in Wych-street and Holy-well-street of bookish memory. (many were unable to witness without regret the disappearance of Holywell street, or Booksellers’ row, as it is often called. The narrow street was as picturesque as anything in London, and some of the quaint, gabled houses, with their overhanging upper stories, were of a type beloved by artists and antiquaries.)A drawing of Holywell Street or Booksellers' Row.Bookseller’s Row before its demolition.
The same may be said of the reputed Palace of Cardinal Wolsey, a the foot of Chancery-lane, which is to retain its quaint old figured façade, and preserve within as many mementoes of its own period as may make an informal museum and repository of civic history, so far as this part of London is concerned.We treat of Kingsway in another chapter, that new northward sweep which is to do so much to span the stream of traffic east and west, much as the bridges do the Thames. Another bridge is projecting in the minds of the authorities, as nearly as possible opposite the Temple, and this may relieve the heavy strain at Blackfriars and Waterloo.The latter is undoubtedly the most graceful bridge we have; Canova, the sculptor, said it was worth coming from Italy to see this bridge alone. It also commands the best sweep that we have of London scenery, for it brings to a focus bout five miles of the winding river, from the purlieus of Lambeth, beyond the Houses of Parliament and the Abbey, right away past the site of the old Hungerford market and Cleopatra’s Needle, to the Savoy, with the new and graceful statue to Sir Arthur Sullivan, standing in greenery far below us. Then, again, our eyes gather in the mingling detail of Bankside, with its multitudinous wharves and brown-sailed, shipping, and the old shot Tower, from where the new and commanding County Council offices are to stand, this side of St. Thomas’s Hospital away down to the eastern curve, where the river-line leads they eye up to the crowning and majestic dome of St. Paul’s. There we descry, mounting high and distant among the house-tops, the square turrets of Tower Bridge, and taking a backward sweep again, we survey the river-edge on the Middlesex side, to where it brings us back to the crescent reaches and regular lines of the Embankment, at the foot of Temple Gardens, the Duke of Norfolk’s estates, and the grey old front of Somerset House. It is well to know, on coming back into the Strand, that the neck of Waterloo Bridge is to be widened at no distant date, and that the terra cotta front of the new buildings facing Sothebys is to be set back so as to give a noble bridge the ample approach it deserves.Space is of the very essence of great schemes, especially where cities and the habitations of millions of men are concerned. Was it not Taine who said that, so far from London being the hive it is conceived to be, many a European city might be built upon the open spaces and the parks of our metropolis? Here is what Mr. John Burns has to say of this very question of London’s breathing-spaces:”There is nothing to beat them anywhere. London boasts 300 beautiful and unequalled squares, 106 L.C.C. [London County Council] parks and open spaces, 12 Royal parks, 120 Borough Council gardens, besides 100 green churchyards, that, apart from being places of rest or play, are pleasant to the eye in any scheme of city decoration. London has not been Haussmannised as Paris was. Personally, I am not anxious it should be. In money it has spent more than Paris did on its improvement, and its expenditure has not been confined to a few mere boulevards, but has been distributed in a fair way over poor as well as rich districts.”A drawing of the Strand as it circumscribes St Clement Danes.
The New Strand and St Clement Danes.