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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

A Man with a Plan for London

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

Arthur Cawston, ARIBA, was a lesser known Scottish architect with huge ambitions but thankfully little influence.

In 1893 he published A Comprehensive Scheme for Street Improvements in London (Stanford). The scale of his vision was immense, perhaps it is best grasped by inspecting his accompanying maps and drawings.

The major improvements to streets that he advocated were building more of them and building them very wide. Below we can see his vision for St James's Park, including a brand new roundabout in the middle of the lake. The Green Park too gains a new carriageway.

Cawston vision for St James's Park
Cawston vision for St James's Park

Below is his illustration of the proposed new roundabout in St James's Park, "Looking East from Existing Lake". Above each plate he included a short motivational text. For this illustration he chose

"The Nation encourages freedom and distributes honours in order that society shall be founded on principles of general utility."

Cawston plan for Aldwych
Cawston illustration of a new roundabout in St James's Park

Here, in a larger scale is his plan for Aldwych. The as yet unbuilt Kingsway is shown as a modest dotted blue line in contrast to Cawston's own far bolder plans.

Cawston plan for Aldwych
Cawston plan for Aldwych

Cawston was a great admirer of Paris, he sought to rebuild London's roads in "continental style" along a rational and symmetrical grid, with great boulevards and grand new vistas. His intention was to rid the city of squalor and improve the health and "welfare of the whole community" through regeneration.

He writes with passion and unshakeable conviction in his cause, more in the tone of a social reformer than a town-planner. He was also clearly a very eccentric fellow.

He firmly believed that art in London had degenerated and that there was an increasing need for technical education. He chose, perhaps unwisely, to illustrate this point with a fold-out page featuring these photos of lamp-posts.

These are his ideal "Lamp-posts of twenty years ago on The Embankment".

Lamp-posts of twenty years ago on The Embankment
Lamp-posts of twenty years ago on The Embankment

Whilst here are those degenerate and technically inept "Lamp-posts of today on the Embankment and near Shaftesbury Avenue"

Lamp-posts of today on the Embankment
Lamp-posts of today on the Embankment

Cawston presented his grand plan to a meeting at RIBA in January 1893. At this meeting Frederic Harrison, who was chair of London County Council's Improvements committee politely kicked Arthur Cawston's scheme into the long grass. He is quoted as saying:

"A good many points would have to be considered before the London County Council could embark on so wide a scheme as Cawston had proposed. The cost of carrying it out would amount to about 150 millions, and he did not precisely see where the money was to come from.The financial side of the subject, indeed, would have to receive much further consideration."

Nevertheless "A vote of thanks to Mr. Cawston was passed".

A Times book review in June 1893 also damned Mr Cawston's plans with faint praise:

"Mr. Cawston undertakes a task ‘too great for any private individual, and though his suggestions for the improvement of London are ingenious, interesting, and in some cases to be commended, they are open to criticism and controversy at almost every point, involving as they do broad new thoroughfares in every direction, new bridges across the Thames, and a startling interference with the present condtion on the parks."

And so the vision of Arthur Cawston never materialised and much of what he would have demolished remains standing. His book is still available though in various print on demand editions but not all of these have the illustrations and maps, which for me, are what make it such an entertaining read.

Refs from The Times, Tuesday, Jan 31, 1893; pg. 10; Issue 33862; col F & Friday, Jun 30, 1893; pg. 3; Issue 33991; col C


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