Tag Archives: Doctors’ Commons

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 – Part Eighty Four

Knightrider Street, EC4V

London is an ever-changing city and testament to that is Knightrider Street. Today it is a rather insignificant alley but in its prime was a major City thoroughfare. In its modern incarnation it runs parallel to Carter Lane to the north and Queen Victoria Street, running from Addle Hill in the west to Peter’s Hill in the east. Formerly, it was much longer, extending further east and, possibly, running into Queen Victoria Street, although this is far from certain, and marked the boundary between a number of City wards. How times have changed.

The street first appeared in documents as far back as 1322, where it appeared as Knyghtrdestrete. The inestimable antiquarian, John Stow, gave an explanation of how the name came about, in his 1598 Survey of London. According to Stow, it “was so called (as is supposed) of Knights well armed and mounted at the Tower Royall, ryding from thence through that street, west to Creede Lane, and so out at Ludgate towards Smithfield when they were there to turney, joust or otherwise to shew activities before the king and states of Realme.”

Others doubt the veracity of Stow’s explanation, charming as it is to imagine knights of the realm riding out in all their splendour for a session at the jousting lists. The problem is that knightrider didn’t exist as a word at the time. In Middle English rider was synonymous with a knight and, perhaps, the street was simply called Rider Street with Knight added as a prefix at a later date, when the association between rider and knight was blurred. Who knows?

The middle section of the street was known as Old Fish Street and at least from the 12th century there was a fish market, piscaria, there. This alone suggests that the thoroughfare, irrespective of its name, dated to that period, if not well before.

Visitors to the street will find, if they walk eastwards, crossing Godliman Street, on their left-hand side The Centre Page pub at no 29, previously the Horn Tavern until the name change in 2002. It has a name check in Pepys’ diaries, Samuel noting on April 13th 1663 “and so I called at the wardrobe on my way home and there spoke at the Horn Tavern with Mr Moore a word or two.” Guy Fawkes is also said to have met there, whilst plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament, suggesting that it was well established before Pepys’ visit.

The pub was badly damaged during the Great Fire but was rebuilt, operating as a fashionable coffee-house, where the Free and Easy under the Rose Society, a form of Freemasons, met from 1758, as well as a tavern. It was here, according to Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, that Winkle, Snodgrass and Tupman sent out for “a bottle or two of very good wine” to sustain their leader during his sojourn in Fleet prison. It was damaged during the blitz but dusted itself down and got back into business. If you visit it these days you will find that there is a corner dedicated to David Hasselhoff, for obvious reasons.

Thomas Linacre lived in the Stone House on the street and it was there that he founded the College of Physicians on September 23rd 1518. Its powers to regulate physicians were extended to cover all of England, not just London, by Act of Parlaiment in 1523. Stow notes that a public lecture in what he termed as Chirugerie was given there every Wednesday and Friday, a custom which was instituted on 6th May 1584.

Stow also noted that from 1570 Doctors of “the Ciuill Law and Arches” kept quarters, known as Doctors’ Commons, and lodged on the street, probably where the BT Faraday building is today. The Commons were destroyed in the Great Fire but rebuilt shortly thereafter, before being demolished in 1867.

Time has not served this street well, methinks.