Tag Archives: A Dictionary of London

The Streets Of London (116)

Queen Victoria Street, EC2

In the 19th century the City of London was even more of a warren of streets and lanes than it is now. As the volume of horse-drawn traffic was increasing and journeys were becoming more protracted and frustrating, something had to be done. The Metropolitan Improvement Act of 1863 gave planners powers to make improvements to the metropolis, some proved more radical than others, and one of the schemes that found favour was to build a brand new, wider thoroughfare that ran from the Bank in the east to Blackfriars in the west and one of my favourite pubs, The Blackfriars, a distance of 0.7 miles in all.

Work had begun in 1861, although specific powers were retrospectively given in the Act, and many of the old streets were demolished. Amongst those lost in whole or in part were Five Foot Lane, Dove Court, Old Fish Street Hill, Earl Street, Bristol Street, White Bear Alley, White Horse Court and parts of Lambeth Hill, Bennet’s Hill, and St Peter’s Hill. The cost of the construction was £1 million, but it was not all plain sailing.

According to Henry Harben in his A Dictionary of London, published in 1918, “considerable difficulties were experienced in the formation of the street owing to the steep gradients from Upper Thames Street to Cheapside, in some cases, the existing streets had to be diverted in order to give additional length over which to distribute the differences in level…subways for gas and water were constructed under the street and house drains and sewers below these”.   

The street was built and opened in sections, the final section to be constructed being the Blackfriars end. After due deliberation, the Metropolitan Board of Works accepted a recommendation in 1869 that the new thoroughfare should be named after the monarch, Queen Victoria. The official opening was on one Saturday afternoon at 3.30 in November 1871, with a procession of worthies starting out from the western end to the Mansion House. Proceedings were concluded with speeches from the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works, Colonel Hogg, and the Lord Mayor.

Perhaps one of Queen Victoria Street’s most lasting contribution to the story of our metropolis is that it hosted London’s first telephone exchange. Sited at the Post Office Savings Bank building on the street it opened for business on March 1, 1902, serving 200 subscribers, including the Treasury, War Office and Fleet Street, over a two-and-a-half square mile area. Demand for the new-fangled speaking contraption grew exponentially so that by 1905 there were some 10,000 subscribers. The exchange’s capacity was hit in 1908. Fortunately, a new common battery exchange had been installed in 1906, with a capacity of 15,000 lines along with an added feature, the ability to link subscribers to connect to the Electrophone exchange in Gerrard Street which relayed performances from theatres and music halls direct to the subscriber’s home.

The large white building on the street, Faraday Building, was built in 1933 and stands on what was the site of Doctors’ Commons, mentioned in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which had housed the Admiralty and Probate Courts and the principal English ecclesiastical court. From its opening Faraday Building was the site for the international telephone exchange and in 1935 it housed an automatic exchange with 6,000 working lines. It took a team of 60 engineers over 15 months to make the switch.         

If you want to get a sense of what the buildings developed at the time of the street looked like, no 146 is as good as any. Built in 1866 it was probably one of the first to be constructed, in a classical Italian style for the British and Foreign Bible Society by architect, Edward l’Anson. It is grade 11 listed.

Nowadays, the street is little more than what it was intended to be, a direct route from the heart of the city to the west.

The Streets Of London (115)

Fye Foot Lane, EC4

The increase in traffic trundling through the City of London by the middle of the 19th century forced the planners to drive a literal and metaphorical coach and horses through the rabbit warren of streets to develop broader thoroughfares. One such created under powers granted by the Metropolitan Improvement Act, 1863 was Queen Victoria Street which runs from Mansion House in the east to Blackfriars in the west. We will take a stroll down that street anon.

Inevitably, as that was part of its purpose, there was collateral damage. As Henry Harben noted in his A Dictionary of London, published in 1918, “numerous courts and alleys, as well as streets of a larger extent, were swept away for its formation”. One of the casualties he named was Five Foot Lane. As was often the case with London’s streets this lane had a variety of names over the years, including Finimore Lane, Fyve Foote Lane, Fyford Lane, and its modern incarnation, a corruption of Five Foot, Fye Foot Lane. Or should that be Fyefoot Lane? Unusually the street sign at one end has it as a three-word name whilst the one at the other end has it as a two-word name. Confusion abounds.    

The lane, which dates from at least the 14th century and runs from what is now Queen Victoria Street to and beyond Upper Thames Street, presumably originally ending at the docks by the riverbank, was initially known as Fynamoureslane, Finamour being some City worthy. It got its nickname of Five Feet, later adopted as its official name, from its width. John Stow, in his Survey of London, records both names.

The principal building of note on the lane was the Great Hall of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers who leased the gaff from the Fishmongers from 1601. As with most of the buildings in the area, it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

That may have gone but the lane in its current form is rather curious. It starts off conventionally off at the Queen Victoria Street end, running between two office blocks. As it heads towards the river, the gradient slopes fairly steeply and then emerging on the northern side of Upper Thames Street, just to the east of the tunnel, it forces the pedestrian to negotiate a double bend before leading on to a footbridge which crosses the road. The bridge is supported by thin concrete wedges and the coat of arms of the Corporation of London are displayed on the railings on either side. You then descend a flight of steps to the river side of Upper Thames Street. Anyone who has tried to cross Upper Thames Street will welcome a relatively safe form of passage.

Delightful is to have a safe passage across a phenomenally busy street whilst having a bird’s-eye view of the traffic, this footbridge forms part of the Corporation’s ill-fated pedway scheme. In 1947 as planners were plotting the renaissance of bomb-damaged London, Charles Holden and William Holford developed a plan for a network of first-floor walkways which would interconnect some of the City’s buildings. It took until the mid-1960s for the City to embrace the idea but from that point many new developments in the Square Mile had to incorporate first-floor access to the Pedway network.

That is why the entrance to the Museum of London in the Barbican Estate is on the first floor. Other stretches were built along Lower Thames Street, Cannon Street and the former Stock Exchange building. The requirement was quietly dropped in the 1980s, although it is now seeing something of a revival with a section of walkway being added in 2017 to the redevelopment of London Wall.

Perhaps because the Fye Foot Lane pedway does not actually go into a building has meant that it has been allowed to exist undisturbed. With the greening of our highways, the time for an extensive pedway network may have come.