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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

Forgotten Images: Destruction & Construction in Aldwych & Kingsway

Between 1901 and 1905 a large area of Central London was demolished to make way for Kingsway and Aldwych.


Many ancient streets and courts were erased, buildings, some dating back to the 1500s were obliterated.


In my last post: Forgotten Images: Before Aldwych and Kingsway, I featured many, long forgotten, images of these lost streets, such as this view of Little Wild Street taken in around 1901.

Little Wild Street just prior to demolition
Little Wild Street just prior to demolition

In this post I am publishing images of the demolition process and the subsequent rebuilding.


Little Wild Street in the course of demolition
Little Wild Street in the course of demolition

All of the images come from this souvenir programme, produced by London County Council for the grand opening on the 18th October 1905, written by Sir Laurence Gomme. I can't find them anywhere else on the net.


The programme produced for the opening of the Kingsway & Aldwych "Improvement"
The programme produced for the opening of the Kingsway & Aldwych "Improvement"

At the time one of the great justifications for the new development was slum clearance. The loss of buildings was argued to be a price worth paying. For example the old Clare Market area was regarded by the authorities as "insanitary" and so as part of the plan all of its "3,172 working class" inhabitants would mostly packed off to new flats in Millbank. In total around 600 historic properties were to be demolished.


Looking at the images of the old streets published in the previous post they certainly don't look like irredeemable slums to me.


Holywell and Wych Streets also had a reputation for booksellers specialising in erotic books and prints. To clear this "infamy" from Central London was seen as desirable. (Although by the time of the development this reputation for smut was perhaps no longer strictly deserved - see the excellent Victorian London page on Holywell Street.)


But perhaps the greatest justification given was to improve traffic flow. It was argued that Strand needed widening and a mighty new thoroughfare needed to be created in Kingsway, the latter complete with a magnificent new Tramway Subway.


Ultimately Parliament gave the go ahead for the entire scheme when it passed the London County Council (Improvements) Act in 1899.


The plan below shows a cross section of Kingsway, 100 feet wide, 60 feet of carriageway and pavements 20 feet wide on each side. The Tramway Subway was constructed in the centre of the highway with sewers and pipe subways to the sides.


Cross Section of Kingsway
Cross Section of Kingsway

These four images show the subway under construction using the same "cut and cover" method that had been employed on the earliest underground lines.


Excavations in Kingsway
Excavations in Kingsway

View of Kingsway during the progress of the Improvement (August 1905)
View of Kingsway during the progress of the Improvement (August 1905)

The Subway in the course of construction
The Subway in the course of construction

The pace of the work was quite incredible. These four images were taken from the same vantage point work between August and October 1905.


Central portion of Kingsway on August 3rd, 1905
Central portion of Kingsway on August 3rd, 1905

Kingsway - Same view as above on August 22nd, 1905 (showing chimney stack demolished)
Kingsway - Same view as above on August 22nd, 1905 (showing chimney stack demolished)

Kingsway - Same view as above on September 16th, 1905 (lower part of Subway commenced)
Kingsway - Same view as above on September 16th, 1905 (lower part of Subway commenced)

Kingsway - Same view as above on October 5th (showing roof of Subway near completion)
Kingsway - Same view as above on October 5th (showing roof of Subway near completion)

So, just to note the breakneck speed of the development; that last photo was taken on October 5th, Gomme finished writing his programme (and included that image) on the 14th of October and just four days after that copies of the freshly printed programme were being presented to The King and Queen at the official opening.


By then this is what they would have seen.


The Subway complete:


The Kingsway Subway
The Kingsway Subway

Kingsway open for traffic and the entrance to the Tramway looks much as it still does today.


The entrance to the Subway (Southampton Row)
The entrance to the Subway (Southampton Row)

The Tramway Subway was still in use until the 1950's. Today it is a Grade II listed structure. You can read more about its history here.


Kingsway (Northern End)
Kingsway (Northern End)

Aldwych too was open for traffic.


Aldwych - East of Kingsway
Aldwych - East of Kingsway

The New Gaiety Theatre on the Western corner of Aldwych and Strand.


The New Gaiety Theatre - Aldwych
The New Gaiety Theatre - Aldwych

The New Gaiety Theatre, suffered damage in the Blitz and was eventually demolished itself in 1956.


The final image is from a different source and dates sometime between 1923 and 1928, but I wanted to include this unusual view as it is relevant to the Kingsway and Aldwych development.


It shows the first central development at Bush House, before the various wings were added over the course of 12 years; the Bush House we know today being completed in 1935.


This is the elevation of Bush House facing the bottom of Kingsway. It was 100 feet tall (the same as the width of Kingsway and Aldwych) and 80 feet wide. The proportions were seen at the time as "almost uncomfortably unusual in a London building".


Bush House Aldwych
Bush House Aldwych

Towards then end of his souvenir programme Gomme provides a table of "Interesting Figures in connection with the improvement". Today we can look back with sadness and disbelief at the wholesale destruction of such an historic area of Central London but perhaps we can still marvel too at the sheer scale of the work required to construct Aldwych and Kingsway as we know them today.


Interesting Figures




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