Tag Archives: Catch Me Who Can

The Streets Of London (112)

Gower Street, WC1

Running from Euston Road at its northerly end to Montague Place at its southern end where it becomes Bloomsbury Street, Gower Street boasts one of the longest sets of Georgian terraces in the capital. They were not universally admired when they were built, John Ruskin, prompted to go all Prince Charles, calling them “the nec plus ultra of ugliness in British architecture”. To relieve the boredom of the brown-bricked frontages some stuccoed entrances were added. By the standards of many of the London streets I have looked at, Gower Street is relatively modern, being initially laid out in the 1780s. It takes its name from Lady Gertrude Leveson-Gower who, in 1737, became the second wife of Bloomsbury landowner, the 4th Duke of Bedford aka John Russell.   

The street had a part to play in the development of the railway. Near what is now Gower Place a circular track was built in 1808 to allow the engineer, Richard Trevithick, to display his new-fangled steam locomotive, a Hazeldine and Rastrick single cylinder engine imaginatively called Catch Me Who Can. The intrepid could, for a fee of 2 shillings, sit in a carriage, originally designed for road travel, and experience the thrill of being pulled along, making it the world’s first steam locomotive to pull a carriage of fare-paying passengers. Unfortunately, the experiment did not last long, the engine and carriage being too heavy for the brittle tracks and after a few weeks, following a derailment, Trevithick had to admit defeat.       

Gower Street also had a part to play in London’s developing underground system. The Metropolitan Railway opened the first line in 1863 and a station at the northern end of the street was one of the original stations. It was renamed Euston Square on November 1, 1909.  

At the northern end of the road, too, a plot of land was taken in the 1820s to build an alternative university to the Anglican dominated institutions at Oxford and Cambridge. It was known as “the godless institution of Gower Street” and its first building, the Wilkins Building, opened its doors in 1828. What is now the University College of London gradually expanded over time to occupy much of the eastern side of the street, including the land behind.

On the west side of the street a teaching hospital, initially known as the North London Hospital and later University College hospital, opened its doors in 1834 to provide clinical training for the “medical classes” of the university, its development prompted by the refusal of the governors of the Middlesex Hospital to allow students access to its wards. The first major operation using ether as an anaesthetic in Europe was performed there on December 21, 1846. The teaching hospital brought a mix of qualified surgeons and doctors and medical students to the area. The students, when not busy at their studies, found time to develop a form of slang known as Marrowskying or Medical Greek or the Gower Street dialect. Essentially it was a form of Spoonerism, swapping around the first or first two letters of words in a phrase, doubtless to confuse those not in the know. So, a mutton chop would become a chutton mop, and smoking a pipe poking a smipe. You get the picture.

These days many of the buildings not used by the university of hospital are so-called boutique hotels, following a tradition from the middle of the 19th century when many of the houses were illegally converted into boarding houses. The Bedford Estate fought a losing battle to close them down in a desperate attempt to preserve the area’s reputation for providing “genteel residences”.

One famous resident was Charles Darwin who rented number 110 on December 29, 1838, moving in two days later. According to his daughter, Etty, Darwin christened the house Macaw Cottage, “laughing over the ugliness of their house in Gower Street and the furniture in the drawing-room, which he said combined all the colours of the macaw in hideous discord”. He worked on his theories of evolution there, before his health forced him to move to Down House in Kent in 1842. The was damaged during the Blitz and became part of the University’s Biological Sciences building in 1961 and the garden part of a car park. An evolution of sorts.