Albemarle Street – W1S
One of the many irksome hazards facing a driver who wants to get from A to B is the one-way system that inevitably means a detour via C and D, if you are lucky. Albemarle Street is situated in Mayfair on the north side of Piccadilly and is the middle wicket of a set of stumps formed by Dover Street and Old/New Bond Street, Grafton Street being the bails. One of its claims to fame or, if you are a frustrated motorist, to infamy is that it was the first one-way street in London and the reason why it became so is fascinating.
Prior to 1683 there had been a mansion called Clarendon House on the site owned originally by Edward Hyde, the 1st Earl of Clarendon and then bought for £26,000 by Christopher Monck, the then Second Duke of Albemarle in 1675. Developers, led by Sir Thomas Bond, came knocking on the Duke’s door in 1683 and offered to take the pile off his hands. Offer accepted the syndicate of investors demolished it to build on its site the streets which make the cricket wicket formation. (Incidentally, a claim to fame of the Duke of Albemarle was that on 6th January 1681 he arranged the first known boxing match to be staged in England, between his butler and his butcher. Inevitably, the bout was won by the butcher who obviously took a shine to the butler’s chops).
Anyway, one of the fine and prestigious buildings to be found on the street is Number 21 which has been occupied by the Royal Institution since 1799. There being no television at the turn of the nineteenth century you had to find your entertainment where you could and the burgeoning interest in what was termed as natural philosophy or science as we would know it proved a potent source of fun.
One source of merriment was galvanism, the rather serious name given to experimentation in nitrous gases (or laughing gas). A leading exponent in investigating the properties of the gas and carrying out experiments including subjecting himself to prolonged periods of gas inhalation was Humphrey Davy. He proposed to give a serious of lectures including practical demonstrations on the properties of the gas at the Institute.
The first lecture had rave reviews. By June of 1801 Davy claimed in a letter that he had an audience of some 500 and, to quote the scientist, “there was respiration, nitrous oxide and unbounded applause. Amen”. Davy who was both young and handsome acquired a strong following amongst the fairer sex. Gillray’s satirical drawing illustrates the composition of the audience and the sort of experimentation undertaken. So popular were the lectures and so horrendous were the queues caused by the horse-drawn carriages bringing the audiences eager to see Davy’s antics that the area became gridlocked. To ease the congestion the authorities introduced a one-way system to regulate and restrict the flow of carriages.
And so an idea was born…