Today (October 18) in London History – Kingsway & the Aldwych

Those grand old London thoroughfares Kingsway and the Aldwych are 117 years old today. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Ok, let’s see if we can do what we say we do, let’s see if we can make the familiar new.

The familiar in this instance is a main thoroughfare that everybody knows and that on the face of it is a bit of a yawn, pretty humdrum. Nothing special about it – or so it would appear. 

I’m talking about Kingsway.

Nobody makes a point of “going to Kingsway” – nobody says, “hey, let’s go to Kingsway.” People say “hey, let’s go to Jermyn Street or Portobello Road or Beauchamp Place or Covent Garden (the Piazza) or Upper Street or indeed some of London’s other big thoroughfares – the Strand or Shaftesbury Avenue or Regent Street or Piccadilly or Bond Street or the King’s Road” – mention any of them and it’s lights up, there’s a sense of anticipation. But “let’s go to Kingsway?” First of all, nobody says that – and if they did you’d look at them with something approaching disbelief –“did he really just say that?” “What’s he smoking?” Saying that would be like hitting a light switch and nothing happens – there’s no light. 

Another way of putting that, it’s just not a destination, Kingsway. 

Familiar it certainly is. Everybody knows it, goes along it from time to time. But it’s got all the buzz of the utility tape that fastens a cardboard box shut.

So, yes, familiar. Can it – familiar old Kingsway – be made new. I think so. 

And why are we making the familiar new on this day, October 18th?

Because Kingsway was officially opened on October 18th, 1905, that’s why.

And what a tremendous affair that opening ceremony was. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

With Kingsway – and the Aldwych – they were part of the same great municipal improvement scheme – getting some historical perspective is a good way to begin to make the familiar new. And a second step is to see it not with our eyes but with the eyes of the people who saw it first. Londoners in 1905. We’ll do both.

Historical perspective first.

The Kingsway-Aldwych undertaking – contemporaries called it the Holborn to the Strand improvement – was the largest such project carried out in London in nearly a century – since the construction of Regent Street in 1820. 

It was to late Victorian–early 20th century London what the Docklands Regeneration project was to the London of our era.

Anyone who knew the old neighbourhood and had been away for years and come back would have been gobsmacked. Lofty buildings and time-honoured landmarks were swept away, whole streets demolished – not to put too fine a point on it, the face of that bit of London was completely transformed. 

For many it was a consummation devoutly to be desired. London desperately needed a better means of communication between those two main, east-west thoroughfares, Holborn and the Strand. In the words of a contemporary observer, “the inconvenience resulting from the existence of the congeries of tortuous and narrow streets connecting these two great arteries of traffic has been experienced, grumbled at, and endured for at least a century. Those days are over. We now have a fine street running through an important business centre and connecting two of the principal thoroughfares of London, to the great advantage of the whole community.

Ok, let’s take a closer look at what the Edwardians were so besotted with, so proud of. 

The new street, Kingsway, began, at its north end, at the junction of Theobald’s Road. And for a flourish to get the show on the road, almost like a fabulous, ravishing very eye-catching hairpin – Sicilian Avenue.

Ok, to be fair, it was a finishing touch. It was designed in 1906 and completed in 1910. But what a joy that tiny, off-at-an-angle pedestrian shopping arcade is – all colonnades and turrets and Italian marble throughout. Chance on it you think you’ve stepped through the magic looking glass to Wonderland, Wonderland in this instance being a piece of Palermo at its best. 

Anyway, let’s step back through the looking glass – which, come to think of it, is what 1905 Londoners must have felt they’d done when they saw Kingsway for the first time – step back through the looking glass to Kingsway. And head south.

The splendid new thoroughfare is about 4,200 feet long. That’s just over three-quarters of a mile. With the exception of a short distance in Southampton Row, it’s 100 feet wide. To get that into perspective for you, Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road are 60 feet wide. 

And do notice, up that way, what looks like the mouth of a tunnel emerging up to the surface. That was where the shallow underground tramway surfaced. The shallow underground tramway that ran all the way along under Kingsway from Aldwych Station. That tramway, when it was completed, would eventually terminate at the Angel in Islington. It was a wonder then, it’d be a wonder today if it were still in service. It could complete the journey from the Aldwych to Islington in ten to twelve minutes. We live in fallen times. Would it were still with us.

What jolly fun it would be to hop into one of the eight cars of that tram, eight cars, each of which held 36 passengers – and go for a quick ride up to Islington. Ah, yesteryear.

And speaking of yesteryear – and the Aldwych and its tramway terminus – it was the southernmost extent of the Kingsway project. And what a dramatic way to bring the new thoroughfare in to its conjunction with the Strand. The name changed there of course – it became the Aldwych. Contemporaries spoke of the two horns of Aldwych. Nice way of putting it. Go down Kingsway and take the horn to the left you’re at St Clement Danes and the western end of Fleet Street. Take the horn to the right at you arrive at the Strand, having passed a couple of theatres and the very grand Waldorf Hotel, which of course was still in the future – though not far in the future – in 1905.

I also like the Aldwych story because it’s an encapsulation of the palimpsest that is London. A perfect demonstration of the vicissitudes of London. And full marks to them for naming it the Aldwych, that name preserves a vestige of the antiquity of the district. And what an antiquity, what vicissitudes. It was first a region of green fields and open country. Then a Roman settlement. Then a settlement of the early Danish conquerors. In time it grew to the dignity of a suburb, with fine houses and noble residents. Then, the decline. It degenerated when the tide of fashion moved westward. Degenerated into – again, the words of a contemporary here – degenerated into “the resort of the poorest and most destitute of our population.” Well, the Kingsway–Aldwych redevelopment put paid to that chapter. Amongst other things it was a slum clearance. Again, contemporary parlance, “3800 persons of the labouring class were dispossessed” by the Kingsway project. Shifted. Moved on, in other words. Almost certainly an impossibility now, but how interesting it would be – what an insight into Edwardian London – to track a few of those persons of the labouring class, find out where they moved to, what happened to them, how they fared. And another measure of what was there before the transformation, the scythe of the Kingsway transformation felled 51 public houses. Drinking establishments. They were just cleared off.

Now as for that official opening today, October 18th, 1905. If the newspaper accounts are anything to go by, the proceedings that day were comparable – in terms of the public response – to a royal wedding. The King and Queen processed from Buckingham Palace to Kingsway. There was bunting and flags and pennants all the way. Thousands of people lined the Mall and the Strand and the Aldwych and Kingsway, in a tremendous show of loyalty, as the newspapers put it. They were escorted by a huge contingent of guards. There was a huge contingent of dignitaries – 3,000 in total – there at the specially erected pavilion at the juncture of Kingsway and the Aldwych. There was speechmaking of course. And then the king was handed a golden key to open the magnificent new thoroughfare.

What cheered me up no end, though, what delighted me – and, yes, this is a confession –  I’m quoting here, we have it on the authority of a newspaper report – what pleased me no end was that “a gang of roughs charged the royal procession at the end of Strand.” I like to think that maybe the charge of the roughs was an expression of how the roughs felt about the loss of 51 of their watering holes.

In any case, all’s well that ends well – the police and the guards saw off the roughs.  In the end, that one discordant note was hugely welcome, not least because the boasting about how wonderful we are, how wonderful Kingsway is – in the breathless words of the Telegraph, “it’s one of the finest thoroughfares in London, and, indeed, in the British Empire,” the boasting about “how wonderful his Majesty is” – this is Edward VII, remember – “tums, as he was known to his friends because of his waistline –and how loyal we are. I mean, it’s fetch the sick bag when the Daily Telegraph solemnly intones, forelock fully tugged, “even the weather, the unscrupulous weather of a London October, was loyal” – a little of that boasting goes a long way, so when you’ve got acres of newsprint hitting that note, well, three cheers for the roughs is what I say.

And a Today in London recommendation, well, as long as we’re in that neck of the woods, Sir John Soane’s Museum just round the corner from Holborn Tube Stop.

Arguably the most remarkable small museum in London. Let me put it this way, anybody who comes to London and misses Soane’s Museum – Soane’s House, I call it – has missed a remarkable experience. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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