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.