Appendix: The Charing Cross Street improvements

Pages 269-272

Survey of London: Volume 16, St Martin-in-The-Fields I: Charing Cross. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1935.

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The old throughfare from Charing Cross to Westminster was in parts very narrow. At its northern end it was not much more than 30 feet across, but it widened out considerably opposite the site of the Banqueting House, where it surrounded an open grass space on which stood a Cross (the White Cross). From this point it probably narrowed gradually to the northern end of King Street, but on the building of Whitehall Palace a great portion of it was taken by Henry VIII, (fn. n1) and the road was reduced to a width of 40 feet between the two gates erected by that monarch. King Street itself was not more than about 30 feet wide. The inconveniences resulting from this narrowness in the only thoroughfare between the City and Westminster, where the Law Courts and the Houses of Parliament were situated, were many and great. The first step taken to remedy this state of affairs was in 1723, when the King Street Gate and the gun platform between the Banqueting House and the Holbein Gate were removed, and the wall of the Privy Garden was set back about 80 feet. In 1735 the Act for building Westminster Bridge was passed. This Act provided for the formation of suitable approaches, and as a result Bridge Street and Parliament Street (a 60-feet thoroughfare running parallel to King Street) came into existence. (fn. n2) In 1759 the Holbein Gate was removed (but not by the Westminster Bridge Commissioners). Before this date, however, attention was being given to the improvement of the northern portion of the thoroughfare. On 19th November, 1754, the Office of Works submitted to the Treasury a plan of a scheme for widening the street on the east side. (fn. n3) On the following day the Surveyor-General put forward a scheme for widening on the west side. (fn. n4) In his report he stated that, as the result of a survey, he had found that the street near the end of Craig's Court was only 33 feet 3 inches "between the fronts of the houses, out of which deducting about Ft/10 I/6 for the footways and posts leaves only F/22 In/9, which is only room for two Coaches or Carriages to go abreast or pass one another, and is much too narrow in this part where the Conflux of these two great Citys meet in their Passage to both Houses of Parliament and Westminster hall." The scheme proposed the acquisition of all the houses occupying the frontage from immediately north of the Admiralty to the corner of the passage into Spring Gardens, and the widening of the street "to about Sixty foot."

In a further report dated 13th October, 1755, (fn. n5) he discussed the cost of the two schemes. That on the west side he estimated at £7,778, made up as follows:

Acquisition of property £10,104
Less disposal of surplus land 2,526
Cost of demolition above the value of the old materials, and the cost of clearing the ground and making good the pavement 200
His estimate of the cost of widening on the east side (fn. n6) was £16,959 8s. 6d. as follows:
Acquisition of property £22,612 10 0
Disposal of surplus land 5,653 2 6
£16,959 8 6 (sic) (fn. n7)

Naturally the former scheme was favoured, and in the following year an Act of Parliament was obtained (29 George II, c. 38) authorising the Westminster Bridge Commissioners to widen the streets, avenues and passages leading from Charing Cross to Westminster, and granting a sum of £10,000 towards the acquisition of property. The commissioners at once set to work, and their surveyor (John Simpson) in August, 1756, submitted (fn. n8) a detailed estimate, amounting to £25,344, of the cost of acquiring the whole of the premises between the main street and Spring Gardens south of the passage between the two (the site of which is now occupied by the Mall Approach) and north of the Admiralty, and including a slice of the Admiralty courtyard, and a shop in front of Lord Dupplin's house south of the Admiralty. The amount seems to have staggered the commissioners, and in June, 1757, the surveyor submitted (fn. n9) a revised estimate, amounting to £13,783, of the cost of purchasing only the houses necessary to allow of a minimum width to the street of 70 feet. The estimate was approved by the commissioners, who resolved: (fn. n10) "That the narrow Part of the Street leading from Charing Cross towards Whitehall shall be Opened and Widened to the Breadth of Seventy Feet at the least, from the South East Corner of Dixon's Court on the West Side of the said Street Southwards to the North East Corner of the Brick Wall belonging to Lord Duplin, which Abutts on the said Street and Adjoins to the Wall belonging to the Admiralty Office Yard," (fn. n11) and instructed their surveyor to negotiate for the purchase of all interests in the property. Although in some cases final legal formalities had to be deferred for years, owing to the difficulty of coming to terms, the improvement seems to have been completed by the end of 1758. (fn. n12)

Two other smaller improvements were carried out at about the same time. By the Act 30 George II, cap. 34, the commissioners were empowered to widen the narrow passage leading from Cockspur Street to Spring Gardens, and a sum of £2, 500 was granted to them towards the acquisition of the necessary property. As a result the passage, which had in one place been not more than 8 feet wide (see plan in Plate 80), was enlarged to its present width of about 38 feet by the demolition of property on its eastern side. The improvement was completed by the end of 1759 or the beginning of 1760. (fn. n13)

The other improvement concerned the then narrow passage, formed about 1729 (see p. 113), known as the New Passage (about 12 feet wide), leading from Charing Cross to Spring Gardens on the site of the present Mall Approach. By the Act 31 Geo. II, c. 36, the commissioners were empowered to widen this passage if they should find, after they had completed the main improvement, that "any monies granted by parliament, for the purposes of the said act, and the incidental expenses thereof, shall remain in their hands." On 22nd May, 1759, the commissioners had the provisions of the Act read before them, and having ascertained that "a Considerable sum of Money" would remain over, resolved to purchase the remainder of the property lying south of the passage. (fn. n14) Subsequently (18th March, 1761) they decided to acquire also the property on the north side. (fn. n15) The exact date when the improvement was completed has not been ascertained, but the new house on the north side had been built by March, 1765. (fn. n16) The width of the enlarged thoroughfare was 30 feet.


  • n1. The proofs of this statement are contained in Survey of London, XIII, pp. 16–17. The alternative explanation by J. T. Smith (Antiquities of Westminster, p. 20) that the difference in width on the two sides of the Holbein Gate was due to Henry VIII having thrown into the public way a large space opposite the site of the Banqueting House is consistent neither with the facts nor with that king's character. The grass space persisted until the beginning of the reign of James I. "By 10 o'clock the King [James I] was proclaimed at Whitehall upon the Green, right against the Tilt Yard." (Letter dated 1st April, 1603, in Historical MSS. Commission, MSS. of the Marquess of Salisbury, Part XV, p. 25.)
  • n2. The formation of Great George Street, which no doubt afforded some relief to the traffic, should also be mentioned. This was a private speculation authorised by the Act 26 George II, cap. 101 (Local). The destruction of King Street and the great extension of the boundaries of Parliament Street are comparatively recent improvements.
  • n3. P.R.O., T. 1/355, fo. 199.
  • n4. Ibid., fo. 207.
  • n5. P.R.O., T. 1/359, fo. 176.
  • n6. The Press got wind of the proposal to widen on this side: "We hear that the Houses at Charing Cross, from the Corner of Northumberland-house to Whitehall Gate, have lately been surveyed, in order to procure an Act of Parliament the next Session for pulling them down and building a handsome Row a great many Yards farther backwards." (Public Advertiser, 4th July, 1755.)
  • n7. In this case the value of the old materials was estimated to cover the cost of demolition, etc.
  • n8. P.R.O., Works, 6/34, pp. 365 ff.
  • n9. P.R.O., Works, 6/34, pp. 439 ff.
  • n10. Ibid., p. 444.
  • n11. It is interesting to note that James Mallors, who had recently built Great George Street under a special Act of Parliament, expressed his willingness to take over the commissioners' duties in connection with this improvement, provided that an Act was obtained for the purpose, and that the £10,000 granted by Parliament was transferred to him. (P.R.O., Works, 6/34, pp. 403 ff.)
  • n12. The commissioners had on 14th March, 1758, instructed their surveyor to give three months' notice to quit to all persons possessing interests in those premises "which have either been Agreed to be Sold to this Commission or have been lately Valued by Juries" (P.R.O., Works, 6/35, p. 9). On 28th November, 1758, the commissioners' mason informed them that he had begun to lay the pavement in front of the new houses then being built, and that in doing so "he had made Circular Holes in the Middle of the said Pavement for the Shooting down of Coals." The commissioners were shocked at the news, and resolved that the holes were "done in an improper manner, and so as to be prejudicial to other parts of the said Pavement." The pavement already made was ordered to be taken up and relaid, and the mason and surveyor were instructed to consider "what proper Methods may be used to make Provisions for the Shooting of Coals" (ibid., pp. 146–7). For other decisions of the commissioners regarding the standard to be observed in the new buildings, see pp. 73, 80 and 103.
  • n13. "Ordered That … Mr. Simpson Do … give Notice to Mr. Francis Plumer forthwith to Cause his Rubbish which lies on the Ground intended to be the new Coachway leading from Cockspur Street into Spring Garden to be Carried away, To the End the said Coachway may be forthwith Paved" (P.R.O., Works 6/35, p. 225–27th November, 1759); "Mr. Simpson informed the Board that … Mr. Plumer had … Caused great part of the said Rubbish to be carried away, And that the whole would be soon removed, And that the said Coachway is begun to be Paved." (Ibid., p. 229–4th December, 1759.)
  • n14. P.R.O., Works, 6/35, pp. 192–3.
  • n15. Ibid., pp. 300–1.
  • n16. See Resolution of the Commissioners to sell the house. (Ibid., p. 469–27th March, 1765.)