This afternoon, I went looking for a secret London street. Well, maybe not secret —based on the evidence of my own eyes, cabbies certainly seem to know it’s there — but arguably hidden. At the very least, I can say it’s a street I didn’t know existed, despite being somewhere I thought I knew quite well. It’s also more of a tunnel.
Lower Robert Street
York Buildings Entrance
Having learnt of its existence yesterday, I decided to go down the proverbial rabbit hole. Not that it contained rabbits, of course, the taxis would have turned them into a thin red smear. It was however, if not actually underground, certainly not open to the sky. This is the entrance to Lower Robert Street:
History of the Street
Lower Robert Street is a survivor from the original Adelphi Buildings, which sat between the Strand and the Thames on what had been the site of Durham House, the London town house of the Bishop of Durham. This magnificent clerical mansion was abandoned and neglected and, by the mid-18th century, was ruinous and its outbuildings were slums.
Then, in 1768, its owner, the Duke of St Albans, granted a 99-year lease to the Adam Brothers, a family of Scottish architects, for the not inconsiderable sum of £1,200 per annum. They immediately set about clearing the site and, by 1772, were ready to start putting up a terrace of 24 houses.
The thing was, the Strand is called that because it ran along the bank of the Thames and the land sloped steeply from street level to the water’s edge. The brothers decided to deal with this incline by building their houses level with the top of it and having them jut out as the ground fell away. This, of course, would also have resulted in the houses falling away If they hadn’t supported them with a whole bunch of vaulted arches, which they did. These formed an undercroft housing a complex of warehouses and similar river-related establishments, served by subterranean streets.
Today, only one of these remains.
The Adelphi Buildings
The Adelphi Buildings — from Greek ἀδελφοὶ (adelphoi) meaning “brothers”, because product branding’s not a new idea —were a triumph of neoclassical architecture, a taste for which Robert Adam (1728–1792) had developed, while studying abroad in Rome. He was already a successful architect when he left his native Scotland, having taken over the family business in concert with his brother John (1721-1792) from their father William Adam (1689–1748), who had been one of Scotland’s foremost architects.
Robert went off to Rome in 1754, returning in 1758 full of big ideas. He set up in business with his other two brothers, James (1732-1794) and William (1738-1822) and together they proved highly successful. All four brothers united on the daring Adelphi Buildings development, upon which they embarked with a level of self-promotion to make Isambard Kingdom Brunel blush. Many of their labourers were those they’d brought down from Scotland and they were kept motivated — or possibly intimidated — by pipers playing bagpipes.
The Adams were building luxury homes and no expense was spared on either exterior or interior, a policy that played well with the prospective clientele but almost bankrupted them during the Credit Crisis of 1772 (banking crises aren’t new either). They had to seek an Act of Parliament authorising a lottery to raise the funds to complete the project. This, they achieved but their reputation took a hit from which it never recovered.
If the Adelphi Buildings above were lovely, the undercroft was less so and this only got worse in the 1860s when Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) — Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works — built the Embankment to conceal his intercepting sewer. The Thames waterline leapt 137 m further away, leaving the warehouses literally high and dry. It wasn’t long before the arches and tunnels became favoured by London’s less salubrious elements, degenerating into dens of vice and prostitution.
Today’s Lower Robert Street is not a whoring hotspot, partly because of the taxis that roar through it as a shortcut and partly because the street is shut late at night.
Lower Robert Street is alleged to be haunted by the ghost of one its prostitutes, known as “Poor Jenny”, presumably because she was unfortunate rather than a low-earner. Her particular misfortune was to be strangled to death by one of her customers and, this not being a restful demise, it is claimed that her screams and the sounds of her struggle echo through the tunnel late at night. Not that you can go and listen for them on account of it being gated and locked then.
Demolition & Replacement
The Adam brothers’ Adelphi Buildings were demolished in the 1930s and a new art deco Adelphi Building built in their stead, being completed in 1938. The only surviving part was № 11, Adelphi Terrace. Oh and this of course:
Still Present in Name Only
In addition to the name of the 1930s Adelphi Building, which still stands today, and the nearby Adelphi Theatre, which has also co-opted the name, the Adam Brothers have left their names on some of the nearby streets.
Lower Robert Street is named for Robert Adam, as is nearby Robert Street. Interestingly, Lower Robert Street doesn’t actually touch Robert Street, instead linking York Buildings to Savoy Place, neither of which are named for the brothers.
Well, that’s where it goes in this reality but Google Maps like to show an alternative London, inhabiting a dimension where Robert Street does not exist and Lower Robert Street takes its place, running down to Adelphi Terrace. On what we might amusedly call the Google Earth, the tunnel beyond the Savoy Place exit goes in a totally different direction and joins up with their Lower Robert Street (which is just Robert Street in our world).
Also in our world and not too far away is Adam Street, which links the Strand to John Adam Street, the latter of which couldn’t be more obviously named after John Adam if it tried. It didn’t actually used to be quite so blatant, being previously John Street (named after John Adam) and Duke Street (named for the Duke of Buckingham but I’ll get to him in a moment). The two streets met end-on and got merged into one, a fate that also befell James Street and William Street (named for the other two brothers), which got united and renamed for the site’s original occupant as Durham House Street.
York House & the Duke of Buckingham
York Buildings, the street on which Lower Robert Street has its entrance, is nominally similar to Durham House Street in that it is a later renaming (dating to about 1852) whose new name refers to structures long since replaced. Specifically, York Buildings was the name of a whole bunch of structures on land that had originally been the site of York House, Durham House’s neighbour. One of the buildings had been a wooden water tower, 21 m high, which loomed as a well-known landmark and eyesore, contrasting badly with this:
Just as Durham House was the London residence of the Bishop of Durham, York House started out as the home of the Bishop of Norwich. Well, that doesn’t make much sense. Except of course it was then acquired by the Archbishop of York and its new name stuck even after Henry VIII also did some “acquiring” (it was church property so he saw it as fair game).
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham
By 1672, it was in the possession of the Dukes of Buckingham and George Villiers, the 2nd Duke (1628-1687), was as typical a Restoration rake as you could wish for, revelling , gambling and generally living it up at the court of James II.
To be fair, he had been on the losing side of the English Civil War and had spent some of its aftermath locked up in the Tower of London, so I guess it’s not surprising he felt the need to let his hair down. Except, in the spirit of the Merrie Monarch’s age of excess, he wasn’t so much a hair-letting-down guy as a proponent of full-on coiffure freefall.
Needing to raise money, the duke sold off York House and its grounds to developers for £30k, adding the proviso that they had to commemorate him in the street names. His full name and title, mind you — no getting away with just Buckingham Street.
Doing It Properly
The developers, sensing a bargain, readily agreed. They made a George Street — the street that is now York Buildings — and a Villiers Street, which runs down the side of Charing Cross railway station. We already know there was a Duke Street, now part of John Adam Street, and Buckingham Street is shown above. That’s everything, right? No. Not quite.
This led to the shortest name given to a London alley, although it has since been renamed.
So what was it called? Well, today it’s York Place but the renaming of it caused an outcry amongst London’s notoriously bloody-minded residents; so much so that the old name is still noted on the sign. In “George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham” there’s still one word unaccounted for…
As a final note, Savoy Place, onto which Lower Robert Street exits, also takes its name from a vanished mansion. The Savoy Hotel stands on its grounds, opened in 1889 by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), who had made a fortune as producer to Gilbert and Sullivan and who actually lived in one of the Adams’ Adelphi Buildings. Richard was able to snap the land up cheaply as a fire had ravaged it in 1864 and it had been derelict since.
The reason the estate is named for what was once a country and is now a region straddling the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland is that Peter II, Count of Savoy, was the maternal uncle of Eleanor of Provence, wife of King Henry III. Peter accompanied his niece to England and Henry gave him land by the Thames, which included a palace built by Simon de Montfort. The palace is long gone — Wat Tyler burnt it down during the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt — but the name, as they say, lingers on.