The Devil's Acre
Victoria to Westminster South of Victoria Street, by Bill Firth
This walk takes a winding course from Victoria Station to Westminster on the south side of Victoria Street. It starts in an area of high class Victorian apartment blocks and passes through an area of Peabody Buildings for the poor into ecclesiastical and parliamentary Westminster but description of the tourist sights of this latter area is left to the guide books. There may not be much industry but there is much social history and architectural interest.
Start at the Wilton Road exit to Victoria Underground Station.
Victoria railway station (GTL03019) — On the far right is the Grosvenor Hotel, the only remaining building from the opening of the first Brighton line station in 1861. The hotel prevented the extension of the platforms on this side and is the reason why platforms 15-19 are shorter than the others. In the centre is the London Brighton & South Coast Railway station, rebuilt in 1901-08 in a free renaissance style. On the left, the London Chatham & Dover Railway station modernised in 1907-08 in French Second Empire Style by A W Blomfield.
In the middle of the road junction Little Ben (GTL04003) is a miniature, 30ft-high version of Big Ben, first erected in 1892, removed in 1963 and then returned in 1981. The plaque on the clock tells the story.
Behind the clock is the Victoria Palace Theatre, 1911, home of the Crazy Gang and the Black and White Minstrels, now neither ethnically or politically correct. It was built on the site of the Royal Standard Music Hall by Frank Matcham, the well known music hall and theatre architect, and originally had a statue of Anna Pavlova on the top.
Across Wilton Road is the Victoria Apollo Theatre, built in 1930 by the well-known Gaumont Cinema architect, W E Trent, as the 2,750 seat New Victoria Cinema with facilities to stage live shows. It occupies a site between Wilton and Vauxhall Bridge Roads and thus has two façades. The exterior has been described as 'Continental', the interior as 'Germanic'. Renamed the Apollo Victoria it has staged Starlight Express for the last 16 years and is currently booking until March 2001.
Victoria Street was cut through slums in the 1850s but it is now almost entirely lined with modern buildings. In 1861 George Train, an American entrepreneur, laid a horse tramway along the street but, although the trams were a success, the rails, which stood over a foot above the road, were not and Train was forced to remove them.
Cross Wilton Road and Vauxhall Bridge Road.
From the far side of Vauxhall Bridge Road the other facade of the Victoria Apollo can be seen.
Turn right into Carlisle Place. STOP BY TREE.
On the left Bosanquet Buildings is one of the earliest purpose-built blocks of flats in this country, built by the Bosanquet family who originally came to England with the Huguenots.
On the right, King's Scholars' Passage marks the course of a stream which ran into the Tyburn and so into the Thames. Later it became a sewer. In earlier times the King's Scholars of Westminster School used to both bathe and fish in the stream and the name has stuck.
Ashley Place is named after Lord Ashley, later Earl of Shaftesbury, philanthropist, champion of the Ragged School movement and the Ten Hour Act designed to limit working hours, as well as other measures to alleviate the lot of the poor.
Turn left into Ashley Place. STOP IN FRONT OF CATHEDRAL.
The cathedral, architect John Francis Bentley, is built on the site of the Middlesex Penitentiary for Women. The fabric was completed in 1902, interior decoration is still in progress. It may not be IA but it is important to anyone interested in architecture and the engineering of buildings. It is a brick building with contrasting bands of Portland stone without steel reinforcement, 97.6 metres (320 feet) long, 47.6 metres (156 feet) high, campanile 83.2 metres (273 feet) high with a cross 3.3 metres (11 feet) high on top. The small domes are of mass concrete. The interior is 'ablaze with mosaic in true Byzantine tradition' and is still being added to.
To the right the back of Bosanquet Buildings can be seen in Morpeth Place.
Turn right into Ambrosden Avenue. KEEP TO RIGHT HAND SIDE.
The high class Ashley Gardens flats in varying styles extend into neighbouring streets.
STOP AT THE END OF THE AVENUE OUTSIDE ARCHBISHOP'S HOUSE.
Opposite, contrasting with the flats, is a grey brick block of workers' dwellings. High up on left hand wall 'The Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. Sir Sydney Waterlow Bart., Chairman 1875' (GTL04012). Go a short way down Windsor Place to see the back of the buildings.
There is a statue of Sir Sydney, Lord Mayor of London, printer and philanthropist in the grounds of Westminster City School on the other side of Victoria Street which is a copy of the one in Waterlow Park in Highgate.
Turn left into Francis Street. STOP ON CORNER OF THIRLEBY ROAD.
Ashley Gardens Flats are all around — on metal plate on railings in Thirleby Road, on doorway opposite the railings and on both corners of Emery Hill Street on the other side of the cross roads. Emery Hill Street commemorates a local benefactor to whom we shall come shortly.
Continue along Francis Street to junction with Greencoat Place. STOP AT JUNCTION.
On the left is the rear of what was the Post Office SW1 district sorting office. On the right, Greencoat House, a rather fine, refurbished red brick block that was the offices and warehouse of the Army and Navy Stores (GTL04014). Note loading bays down Greencoat Row.
Turn down Greencoat Row and right into Greencoat Place. STOP OUTSIDE GREENCOAT MANSIONS.
The mansions were not originally built by the Peabody Trust but the trust now administers them. They are another example of housing built to cater for the poorer classes. (Maybe the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company).
George Peabody was an American philanthropist resident in London 1837-62, who, in gratitude for the happiness and prosperity he had enjoyed, endowed a fund of ₤500,000 'to ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis'. The result was the building of 'cheap, cleanly, well-drained and healthful dwellings for the poor'. The fund now administers some 12,000 dwellings in London.
Rochester Row, into which we shall be turning shortly, is a more noisy location and we will not stop there but there are two things to point out.
Across the street is the rear of the United Westminster Almshouses, designed by R R Arntz in 1881 to amalgamate three separate establishments plus Hannah Chadwick's charity. The site is actually that of Emery Hill's almshouses. The plaques from the original houses, the charities of Emery Hill, Nicholas Hill and James Palmer are set high up in the walls on either side of the houses in Rochester Row and we shall pass them shortly.
Further along Rochester Row by the zebra crossing, above a doorway, there is a plaque to Francis Charles Morgan, Secretary of the Western Dispensary, an early attempt to bring medical treatment to the poor.
Turn left into Emery Hill Street and then left into Rochester Row. At the Zebra Crossing beyond almshouses cross the road. STOP ON CORNER OF ROCHESTER STREET.
The Devil's Acre. The sub-title of this walk is the Devil's Acre, which we are now entering. Until well into the 19th century this area, close to Westminster Abbey, was one of the country's worst pits of crime and despair. To quote a local historian, 'Into the rookery were crammed every manner of lawbreaker and every vice, festering amid squalor which shocked all who had courage enough to enter'. We should be safe enough here at the start of the 21st century.
St Stephen's Church is worth mentioning. Opened in 1850, the architect was Benjamin Ferrey, a pupil and biographer of Pugin. It is an interesting mid-Victorian church based on the 14th-century decorated style. The benefactor was Angela Burdett-Coutts, the well known philanthropist, as part of an attempt to clean up the area.
Go down Rochester Street. STOP OPPOSITE SCHOOL.
Miss (later Baroness, in her own right) Burdett-Coutts was also connected with the school. On the right, Burdett-Coutts Townshend Foundation Schools. Three plaques, two on either side of the first doorway, one above the entrance at the far end of the school give the history of the school.
Continue down Rochester Street. STOP OUTSIDE ROYAL HORTICULTURAL SOCIETY HALL.
The Royal Horticultural Society's New Hall is a building very much in the 'modern' style of its time. The interior with its reinforced concrete arches is well worth seeing. On the far corner of the building by Elverton Street a stone commemorates the architects, Easton and Robertson, 1928, above it is an RIBA award medallion. Opposite is the rear of the Old Hall of 1904, architect E J Stebbs.
Turn left into Elverton Street. STOP BEFORE COMING TO HORSEFERRY ROAD.
Horseferry Road is no place to stop but there are two features to note as we walk along.
The first building on the left in Horseferry Road is the Territorial Army Centre, housing the headquarters of the London Scottish (Volunteer) Regiment. It includes part of the original drill hall built on a site in Buckingham Gate in 1886 to designs of John MacVicar Anderson but due to space limitations only three of the original five bays were relocated (1988). To create a large unbroken floor space the hall is spanned by arched cast-iron booms from which are suspended the partition walls and spectators' galleries.
On the right, headquarters of Channel 4 Television by Sir Richard Rogers, 1994. A typical Rogers building with 'sharp geometric forms and high-tech prefabricated components'. At the time the most advanced television centre in Europe, very much in keeping with the image Channel 4 wants to project.
Turn left into Horseferry Road, continue ahead round corner into Greycoat Place. STOP OUTSIDE SCHOOL
On the left is Greycoat School, founded in 1695 for 40 poor boys and 40 poor girls. Since 1874 the boys have gone to other schools and the Greycoat School is for girls only.
Opposite the school, Westminster Fire Station (LCC 1906) (GTL04011). There is a commemorative stone on the façade.
Cross the road, retrace steps to crossroads, turn left into Strutton Ground (street market). STOP FACING PEABODY BUILDINGS IN HORSEFERRY ROAD.
On the opposite corner of the crossroads is the Peabody Trust's Horseferry Road Estate of 1922 in red brick with Mansard roofs (120 dwellings). Compare this with the buildings in Greencoat Place and recall both when we come to some more Peabody buildings shortly.
Continue up Strutton Ground and turn right into Old Pye Street. STOP BEFORE PEABODY ESTATE.
On the right, the Peabody Old Pye Street Estate of 265 dwellings was built in 1877 and 1885. Through the arch in the middle of the building the War Memorial to residents killed in the First World War can be seen (GTL03567).
Across Abbey Orchard Street is the larger Peabody Abbey Orchard Estate of some 300 dwellings.
Tenants like the old buildings when they have been modernised. The thick walls make them cool in summer and warm in winter and keep out noise. The more modern blocks are warmer in summer, colder in winter and much more noisy.
Continue along Old Pye Street. STOP BEYOND PEABODY BUILDINGS BY RAGGED SCHOOL PLAQUE.
On the right in an entrance shortly before St Ann's Lane over a modern doorway is a plaque commemorating the One Tun Ragged School which was here.
Turn right into St Ann's Street. STOP OPPOSITE SCHOOL.
On the right St Matthew's School, 1868, has a commemorative stone above the window.
Opposite is the purpose-built building opened in 1994 for Westminster Archives, relocated from Buckingham Palace Road Library.
On left hand corner at the end of the street is a new Salvation Army refuge for the homeless replacing an earlier Victorian hostel. The foundation stone from the first building has been built into the new structure.
Cross road. STOP BY SALVATION ARMY REFUGE FOUNDATION STONE.
Opposite there is a distinctively brutal 1960s office block, designed by Eric Bedford in association with Robert Atkinson & Partners, 1963-71, which is now being refurbished. The site was occupied by the Westminster Gasworks until 1937. In 1813 the Westminster Gasworks was the first permanent works to be erected for public gas supply (GTL03810).
During the Second World War a bunker designed to hold hundreds of civil servants in complete safety for several months was built on the circular base of a gasholder. It is said the bunker is connected by tunnel with the Cabinet War Rooms (GTL02615). The above ground part of the bunker now forms the incongruous base of the office block. The rough state of the concrete is an indication of the speed, and probably the economy, with which the original bunker was built.
Turn left into Great Peter Street, cross and turn right into Marsham Street. STOP BY STREET NAME SIGN.
Just down Marsham Street on the right, the stone in the wall is inscribed 'This is Marsham Street 1688' (GTL04013). It is one of the oldest street name signs in London.
Cross road into Tufton Street. STOP BY No.15.
In the 19th century there was a cockpit here.
On the right number 15 is occupied by J Wippell & Co, church furnishers, established in the 18th century. At number 7, Watts & Co, is another long established firm of church furnishers.
Continue along Tufton Street. STOP ON CORNER OF LITTLE SMITH STREET.
This is the corner of the side and back of Church House, a more modern building than it seems. We shall pass the front shortly. It was built in 1937-39 to designs of Sir Herbert Baker as a replacement for an earlier building. Both the Houses of Parliament met in Church House during the Second World War after the Palace of Westminster had been damaged by bombs.
At the end of the street, opposite, in Great Smith Street, are the Westminster Public Library and Baths. The library is on the site of an earlier Mechanics' Institute. Plaques on the buildings give the history. Notice the bas relief of bathing and laundering figures above the baths and the heads of Spenser, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dryden, Milton and Tennyson on the library.
Turn right into Great Smith Street. STOP OUTSIDE CHURCH HOUSE.
Across the road number 22 is an attractive office block in terracotta office block of 1904.
Cross Great Smith Street, continue to corner of Abbey Orchard Street. STOP ON CORNER.
Orchard House is a listed building, contemporary with number 22. The stylised heads over the doorway are by Doulton.
Also worth a mention is an old sign with directions to the library, baths and Church House high up on the wall by the junction with Victoria Street.
Continue along Great Smith Street, cross Victoria Street and Tothill Street into Storey's Gate. STOP OUTSIDE CENTRAL HALL.
Central Hall, built in 1905-11, is the chief Methodist Church. Designed by Lanchester and Richards it is an example of an early use of a steel framework. It is built on the site of the Royal Aquarium, Music Hall and Imperial Theatre, an entertainment complex which operated with varying success 1876-1903. In 1948 the first assembly of the United Nations was held here.
The funding of the building is also of interest. At the end of the 19th century many of the leaders in the Methodist church were looking for a way to suitably commemorate the centenary of the death of John Wesley (actually in 1891). In 1898 it was resolved to raise one million guineas (old currency of course) to finance a great forward drive of the Methodist movement and to build a centenary memorial hall in London. While large donations were not discouraged the plan was to encourage as many ordinary members of the church as possible to donate a guinea to the fund. All donors were given an illuminated certificate. The idea caught on and many poor families scrimped and saved to raise their guinea. In 1904 the fund was closed when ₤1 million pounds had been raised. This was an enormous sum in the early 1900s and Central Hall itself cost ₤350,000 for the site and ₤155,000 for the building including equipment and architect's fees. It is salutary to think what ₤1 million would buy 100 years ago.
Almost opposite is the modern Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.
Visible behind the trees in Broad Sanctuary is the Middlesex Guildhall. Built in 1906-13 the architect was J S Gibson. Above the windows are representations of various arts, crafts and industries. It is worth looking at.
The street at the end is Great George Street, otherwise known as Engineer's Row. The first building on the right is the Institution of Civil Engineers (GTL03701). Further down on the right is the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Lastly, on the left facing the park, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Additionally Robert Stephenson and William Cubitt lived in the street in houses, long since demolished.
Turn right along Great George Street and Westminster Bridge lies ahead, with Westminster underground station. Turn left into Whitehall for buses.
© GLIAS, 2001