The Strand : Introduction

Pages 59-63

Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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"Come, Fortescue, sincere, experienced friend,
Thy briefs, thy deeds, and e'en thy fees suspend;
Come, let us leave the Temple's silent walls;
My business to my distant lodging calls;
Through the long Strand together let us stray,
With thee conversing, I forget the way."—Gay.

Condition of the Strand in the Days of the Plantagenets and Tudors—Rules for Hackney Coaches—Taylor, the "Water Poet"—Origin of the Name of the Strand—Graphic Sketch of the Strand Five Centuries ago—New Paving Act—State Pageants—Temple Bar in Danger—Messrs. Childs' Bank.

During the reign of Henry VIII. an active stir had commenced for the reparation of streets and highways in and about the metropolis, and the necessity for such improvement is fully shown by the words of the royal statute which was then enacted for the purpose. In granting permission to lay out a new road in the Weald of Kent, which formed an important thoroughfare to London, we are told that "many other common ways in the said Weald be so deep and so noyous, by wearing and course of water and other occasions, that people cannot have their carriages or passages by horses, upon or by the same, but to their great pains, peril, or jeopardy." Nor in approaching London was the case improved, in several instances at least; for the suburban districts, as yet only villages separated from the City by fields, gardens, and a sprinkling of cottages, were connected with the City by a highway, often left in grievous disrepair through the negligence of the inhabitants. Such was the case even with that great artery of the metropolis—the Strand—of which we are about to treat.

Frequented though it was, and necessary for the comfort of the City, yet this highway, in the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth years of Henry VIII., is described as a road "full of pits and sloughs, very perilous and noisome." There is extant somewhere or other in the Rolls of Parliament, a complaint of the high-road between the Temple "and the village of Charing" being so deep in mire as to be almost impassable. In fact it had earned a thoroughly bad character. It was described in the statute above quoted as "very noyous and foul, and in many places thereof very jeopardous to all people passing and repassing, as well on horseback as on foot, both in winter and in summer, by night and by day." By this route, however, Cardinal Wolsey, when residing in Chancery Lane, used to ride down to Westminster Hall, in all the magnificence which befitted a "Prince of the Church," as already described in the first volume of this work (page 81).

In speaking, however, of the disgraceful condition of the high-road between London and Westminster, in the days of the Plantagenets, we are in danger, perhaps, of forgetting the fact that at that time the traffic along it consisted mainly of foot passengers, or riders on horseback, carriages being then almost as unknown as hansom cabs or omnibuses. Elizabeth, as we know, rode usually on a pillion, even on state occasions, and fifty years after her, we are told, there were only thirty vehicles on wheels in the whole of London. No wonder, therefore, that many of our old thoroughfares are still narrow in the extreme.

In the present admirably-paved state of the streets of the metropolis, the following statement relative to the Strand, Charing Cross, and Parliament Street, must appear strange:—"In 1353, the road from London to Westminster had become so dangerous for the transit of passengers or carriage of goods, as to demand the interference of Government. A mandate was therefore directed, in the name of the king and council, dated Westminster, Nov. 20, to John de Bedeforde, of London, appointing him the commissioner for the paving of the road in question. This instrument recites, that the highway leading from the gate called Temple Bar, London, to the door of Westminster Abbey, by the frequent passage of carts, horses, merchandise, and provisions, to the Staple at Westminster, ever since its establishment, had become so deep and muddy, and the pavement so much injured and broken, that unless soon repaired, great perils must be incurred by the passage both of men and of carriages. In order to remedy this evil, therefore, it was ordained that the foot-pavement adjoining to the houses on the line of the road should be newly laid, at the expense of the owners of the nearest houses; and that money should be levied by tolls on goods sold at the Staple, to defray the charge of paving the road between the kennels on each side."

In 1625 there were twenty hackney coaches in London; but they multiplied so rapidly, that in ten years afterwards Government took the alarm at their general use, and endeavoured to limit it, upon the plea that these carriages "disturbed the ears of king, queen, and nobles, jostled horse and foot passengers, tore up the streets and pavements, and increased the price of hay and horse provender." It was therefore ordered "that no hackney or hired coaches be used or suffered in London, Westminster, or the suburbs thereof, except they be to travel at least three miles out of the same; and also, that no person shall go in a coach in the said streets, except the owner of the coach shall constantly keep up four able horses for our (the king's) service when required." But the time had gone by when such despotic edicts were in force; and Cromwell himself, we are told, was destined soon after to drive four-in-hand, in Jehu fashion, through this forbidden territory, and be capsized for his pains.

Scarcely had this innovation been commenced in London, when Taylor, the "Water Poet," who plied a scull upon the Thames, exclaimed, "They have undone my poor trade!" Speaking of the coaches, he adds, "This infernal swarm of trade spillers have so overrun the land, that we can get no living on the water; for I dare truly affirm, that every day in any term, especially if the court be at Whitehall, they do rob us of our livings, and carry five hundred and sixty fares daily from us." Alluding also to the confusion produced by this startling civic revolution, he adds, "I pray you look into the streets, and the chambers or lodgings in Fleet Street or the Strand, how they are pestered with them (coaches), especially after a mask or a play at the court, where even the very earth quakes and trembles, the casements shatter, tatter, and clatter, and such a confused noise is made, so that a man can neither sleep, speak, hear, write, nor eat his dinner or supper quiet for them."

The scene presented by the thoroughfare of the Strand, through its entire length, if we may believe such an eyewitness as John Evelyn, was very gay and brilliant. He writes in his Diary, "May 29, 1660. This day his majestie, Charles II., came to London, after a sad and long exile and calamitous suffering both of the king and church, being seventeen years. This was also his birthday, and with a triumph above 20,000 horse and foot, brandishing their swords and shouting with inexpressible joy; the ways strew'd with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with tapestry, fountains running with wine; the mayor, aldermen, and all the companies in their liveries, chains of gold, and banners; lords and nobles clad in cloth of silver, gold, and velvet; the windowes and balconies well set with ladies; trumpets, music, and myriads of people flocking even so far as from Rochester, so as they were seven hours in passing the City, even from two till ten at night. I stood in the Strand and beheld it, and bless'd God. And all this war done without one drop of bloodshed, and by that very army which rebelled against him; but it was the Lord's doings, for such a restoration was never mentioned in any history, ancient or modern, since the return of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity; nor so joyful a day and so bright ever seen in this nation, this happening when to expect or effect it was past all human policy."

To pass on to a somewhat later date, we are told by Malcolm that when, in 1689, the number of hackney carriages in London was limited by Act of Parliament to 400, the inhabitants of the Strand and Fleet Street petitioned against any increase in their numbers, on the ground that "they prevented the quality from getting to their shops!"

During the time of Queen Elizabeth, considerable improvement had been effected by the filling up of the gaps or blanks left between the dwellings that had already been built along the Strand; and by the end of her long reign, both sides of this line of route had been nearly covered with the mansions of the nobility, so that Westminster may be said at that time to have been joined on to London. The still rural character, however, of the districts abutting on the north side, at the time when the Strand was only an unpaved road, may be gathered from the existence to our own day of such names as the Convent (Covent) Garden, Long Acre, St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, and Lincoln's Inn Fields, most of which were open country at the date of the earliest existing map of the metropolis.

The name of the Strand is clearly of Saxon and not of Norman origin; and, if we may trust a writer in the Penny Cyclopædia, it is mentioned by name in the Saxon Chronicle. And as a proof of the statement it is recorded that upon the Strand Earl Godwin and his son Harold drew up their land forces in the insurrection which they headed against Edward the Confessor, in A.D. 1052.

We find this thoroughfare sometimes spoken of as "the High Street of Westminster, commonly called the Strand," as, for instance, in the lease by which Sir Wm. Cecil agrees to take his property in this neighbourhood for a term of years from the Earl of Bedford. The lease is printed in extenso in the thirtieth volume of the "Archæologia."

The following graphic sketch, which we take from All the Year Round, carries us back to the Strand of five hundred years ago:—

"Beyond the Bars is the river-side road, called 'Strand Street.' It was sorely in need of paving until lately, when a tax for its repair was levied on all goods carried along it to the Staple at Westminster. Here, many lords, spiritual and temporal, have goodly Inns, of which you can see but two or three: the Bishop of Exeter's close on the left; the Bishop of Bath's beyond it; and the Bishop of Chester's, with the old stone cross before it. At that cross the Judges have sometimes sat to try pleas. The palace which you can just see to the left is the Savoy, so called from Peter, Count of Savoy, who built it in the reign of our Henry III., whose Queen was the Count's niece. Now the Duke of Lancaster is the owner thereof, and John, the captive King of France, lodged there not long since. The bridge over the lane in the centre of the road is called 'Strand Bridge.' On the right of St. Clement Danes Church you see the wells of St. Clement and Holy Well; and, beyond them, the vineyard and convent garden of the Abbey of Westminster, skirted by the woods of Long Acre. The church among the fields in the distance is St. Martin's."


Between the Strand and the river-side there are four or five great and noble families whose names and histories are interwoven with the vicinity. Nearest to Temple Bar, the Devereuxes, Earls of Essex; next the Howards, of the ducal family of Norfolk; then the Protector Somerset, the Cecils, Earls of Salisbury and Exeter, and Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, to say nothing of the proud line of Percy, Dukes of Northumberland, who up to 1874 have kept up their town residence at Charing Cross. About one and all of these in succession we shall have plenty to say in the next few pages.

Mr. A. Wood, in his "Ecclesiastical Antiquities of London," tells us that "the Abbot of Westminster had a garden on the banks of the Thames, where Westminster and London join, near St. Clement Danes. It was called the 'Frère Pye Garden,' and stood opposite to the palaces of the Bishops of Durham and Carlisle." The site is fixed by its garden, which is now Covent Garden.

The town house of the Duke of Beaufort in the reign of Charles II. stood here, on the site of what now are known as Beaufort Buildings; but the family removed thence to Beaufort House at Chelsea in 1682. Then there was Essex House, and the Inn of the Bishops of Norwich (afterwards York House), which as far back as the reign of Edward III. spread out their embattled fronts towards the Strand, while their extensive gardens, terraces, and water-stairs sloped down to the river. Spelman says that in the troublous times of the Tudors most of the houses of the prelates in the Strand were taken from them by courtiers "without any recompense."

Among the characteristic features of the Strand at this period were the bridges that spanned the various water-courses flowing from the meadows and open fields on the north, and crossing this thoroughfare in their way to the Thames. One or two of these bridges were kept in remembrance down to comparatively recent times in the names of Ivy Bridge Lane and Strand Bridge Lane, of the latter of which—now simply Strand Lane—we shall have to speak presently, in connection with the old Roman bath which is situated there. Then there was the stone cross, of which old Stow speaks as being situated in front of the spot now occupied by St. Mary's Church, and which in its turn gave place to the famous Maypole, thus alluded to in the "Dunciad," and of which we shall speak hereafter:—

"Amidst the area wide they took their stand,
Where the tall Maypole once o'erlook'd the Strand;
But now, as Anne and Piety ordain,
A church collects the saints of Drury Lane."

Stow states that the Liberty of the Duchy of Lancaster extended from Temple Bar to the east side of Cecil Street, near what is now the Adelphi, and from the stocks just outside Temple Bar to "a stone cross, now headless," over against the Maypole in the Strand, and along by Exeter Change and Burleigh Street.

The foot-pavement of this quarter of the town, as well as of other parts of Westminster, would seem to have been in a deplorable state as recently as the year 1762, when a new paving Act was passed. Until that time, it appears, every inhabitant did before his own house just what was right in his own eyes, without rule or plan. The consequence was that some parts of the footway were paved admirably, some indifferently, and some were left unpaved—mere pools of mud and water—according to the wealth or caprice of each resident. A proof of the general filth of this part of the Strand may be found in the London Chronicle of the time, where we read, apropos of the new measure of reform, "All sorts of dirt and ashes, oyster-shells, the offals of fish, poultry, and other kinds of meat, will now no longer be suffered to be thrown loose into the streets, but must be kept until the dustman comes round; nor will the annoyances erected by coachmakers be permitted; and when a house is pulled down the rubbish must be carried to the proper place, and not left on the footway."

In the description of the Strand given by him in 1807, Pennant complains of the street as being in some places too narrow for the incredible number of persons and carriages passing through it.

The Strand has witnessed in its day some strange and curious sights. For instance, we read that Queen Elizabeth, when she rode into the City, sat on a pillion behind her Lord Chancellor, wagons and the newly-invented carriages being in disfavour with her Majesty. Among the numerous pageants which the thoroughfare of the Strand has witnessed may be mentioned the procession of Queen Elizabeth in state to St. Paul's, to return thanks for the victories over the Spanish Armada. Queen Anne passed this way in state to St. Paul's on several occasions, to commemorate victories over France and Spain. In 1704 there was a state visit to the City to celebrate the victory of Blenheim; and in like manner have been commemorated the victories of Ramillies and other important triumphs. Then there was the religious ceremonial when George III. and his consort went in state to St. Paul's to offer a nation's thanks for its king's recovery; the solemn conveyance of captured banners and the great naval procession to St. Paul's, headed by the King, in 1797; the funeral procession of Lord Nelson in 1806, and that of the Duke of Wellington in 1852; and the visits of Queen Victoria, when she went in state to dine at Guildhall, and to open the new Royal Exchange, and, in 1872, to return public thanks for the restoration of the health of the Prince of Wales.

But probably none of these pageants ever presented a scene so striking as when the gates of Temple Bar were opened at the approach of the second Charles on his restoration, and the King, brought back to his own again, rode gallantly through the City to Whitehall. The houses of the Strand were adorned with the richest tapestry, and window, balcony, and scaffold were crowded with all that was beautiful and loyal. The streets were lined with members of the City companies in their liveries, and the loud music of the trained-bands, and the din of the bells from a hundred steeples, were drowned in the cheers of the enthusiastic populace. This event appears all the more impressive when contrasted with the rueful spectacle presented by Temple Bar just eighty years later, when the heads of the most devoted followers of the house of Stuart were exposed over its gates, as if in bitter derision of the monarchs of the exiled Stuart line whose effigies adorn its niches.

As we have already stated, the appearance of Temple Bar at the present time (November, 1874) is sufficient to impress any passenger along the Strand, in his way to the City, with its utterly hopeless prospect. Temple Bar—almost the last relic of the geographical sovereignty of London—looks now as if it really needed friends, and its aspect is forlorn and hopeless in the extreme, and amply sufficient to justify our reprinting the following lines, written on the report of removing Temple Bar in 1788:—
"If that gate is pulled down, 'twixt the Court and the City,
You'll blend in one mass prudent, worthless, and witty;
If you league cit and lordling, as brother and brother,
You'll break Order's chain, and they'll war with each other.
Like the great wall of China, it keeps out the Tartars
From making irruptions where industry barters.
Like Samson's wild foxes they'll fire your houses,
And madden your spinsters, and cozen your spouses;
They'll destroy in one sweep both the mart and the forum,
Which your fathers held dear and their fathers before'cm."

But it is time to pass from these general remarks to a more detailed account of the thoroughfare of which we treat.