These are a series of short notes on some of the more interesting places of London whose histories are now generally forgotten. Many of them disappeared in the various grand redevelopment schemes of the 19th and 20th centuries but an occasional gem does survive. Some have even left their names on buildings which now occupy their places.
London's original northern bypass was Oxford Street. By the middle of the eighteenth century however it had become increasingly hemmed in by houses and congested with traffic. A particular problem were the herds of cattle which were drive through it on their way to Smithfield Market. In 1755, therefore, a group made up of farmers, tradesmen and gentlemen from the villages of Paddington, Marylebone and Islington produced a scheme to construct a new broad highway a half a mile to the north.
It was to be called the New Road and would run from Paddington to Islington. The construction would be jointly undertaken by the Marylebone and Islington turnpike trusts. The sponsors claimed that it would improve communication between Essex and Middlesex and free London from the growing traffic congestion. They also suggested that the proposed road would provide a line of defence in the event of war and allow the easy movement of troops. A Bill was presented to Parliament which was asked to sanction the construction.
Original 1755 plan for the scheme
The proposed route ran through what were then entirely open fields and an area considered to be well outside London. Many of the landowners were happy with the scheme - not only did they profit from the compensation paid to them but they also welcomed the improvement in communications. The most prominent supporter of the scheme was Fitzroy, the 2nd Duke of Grafton the positions of whose fields are now occupied by Grafton Way and Grafton Mews. But there were also objections to the scheme.
Hampstead turnpike in 1740.
The development threatened the rural character of the area which was quite marked even at this date. One of the early casualties was to be the Hampstead Turnpike the site of which is now occupied by the National Temperance Hospital beside Euston Station.
The most prominent of the objectors was the Duke of Bedford whose Bloomsbury Estate lay half a mile to the south of the proposed route. He had no need of the compensation and resented the disturbance that the scheme would bring to his fields. Much of his threatened property was arable land and he used the fields to keep sheep and cattle from his estate at Woburn which were then sent to Smithfield.
Horace Walpole dismissed his objections on the grounds that he seldom came to London and was, anyway, half blind. But the Duke was also concerned about the reaction of many of his tenants. These tended to see themselves as tenants on an exclusive private estate and were extremely sensitive to anything which intruded on this. Before the birth of the New Road scheme they had already been complaining of traffic along Holborn and taking shortcuts through Bloomsbury. They also resented the unruly behaviour which was becoming a feature of the local market. A certain Mrs Nash roundly declared that if things didn't improve 'We must all leave our homes, there is no bearing of it.'
Marylebone in 1740
The threatened fields themselves were already a source of some nuisance to the worthies on the Bloomsbury estate. They were frequently used for duelling which was then still legal. The most famous was one in which two brothers were said to have lost their lives as rivals for the same lady. A subsequent tradition held that the bank where the lady had sat to watch the duel, and the foot marks of the brothers, would never be covered with grass. The crowds, who walked out to see the spot, by walking up and down, helped to keep the legend alive for many years. There were reports of vagrants and of a 'vile rabble of idle and disorderly people' often 'insufficiently dressed' who played cricket and suchlike games in the fields. And then there were the boys who flew kites and bathed in the ponds. The great scourge of the latter unfortunates were the Capper sisters.
These were the unmarried daughters of Christopher Capper and they jointly managed the farm, Capper's Farm, which occupied the bulk of the Duke's farmland. They were described by an official of the British Museum thus:
They wore riding habits and men's hats. One used to run after boys flying kites with a large pair of shears to cut the strings. The other seized the clothes of those who trespassed to bathe.
The farm occupied the 'Long Fields' behind the west end of what is now Great Russell Street and the energetic sisters were loud in their objections to the scheme. In view of the clouds of dust and dirt that the new road would occasion, and which would be detrimental to their hay, they would seek a reduction in their rents. And, they asked, what would happen to the view for the road would certainly attract building? Miss Capper went further and wrote a submission to the House of commons committee which was considering the scheme.
The objections were to no avail and the road went ahead, being made even wider than the original scheme had planned. It was forty feet wide and building was forbidden within fifty feet on either side of it so that long gardens lined its route. The scheme was a thoroughgoing success and made immediate and substantial profits for some of the landowners who turned their fields over to brickmaking. Very shortly after its completion an extension, the City Road, established a connection with the heart of the City itself.
London's first bus.
The route of the New Road is today traced by Marylebone Road, Euston Road and Pentonville Road, and is still one of the most important thoroughfares in London and serves three of London's main railway termini. In fact, when the railways arrived in the nineteenth century the New Road was defined as the northern boundary beyond which no railway from the north of west could terminate. It also provided the route for London's first Omnibus service. Euston Square was built in 1827 and named after the Dukes of Grafton who were also Earls of Euston. The road was re-named Euston Road in 1857 and the south side of the square was renamed Endsleigh Gardens in 1880. And the scourges of all those boys were not forgotten - with supreme irony, Capper street runs between Tottenham Court Road along the south side of the maternity wing of the University Hospital.
This was the dock between Wapping New Stairs and King Edward's Stairs and was traditionally the place where pirates and seafarers were hanged. The notorious Captain Kidd was the most famous of the Dock's unwilling guests. It lay opposite what is today Brewhouse Lane, where it joins Wapping High Street. In his survey of London, first published in 1598, John Stow tells us that the custom was to hang the pirates or sea-rovers at the low water mark and leave the body until it had been covered by three tides. He goes on to remark that there were no houses in the immediate area for the forty years before he wrote his London history.
However, when the gallows had been
"removed farther off, a continual street, or filthy strait passage, with alleys of small tenements, or cottages, built, inhabited by sailors' victuallers, along by the river of Thames, almost to Radcliffe, a good mile from the Tower." This was to become Wapping High Street which was later known for industries related to shipping. It was also an area of entertainment for sailors and in 1750 could boast of having 36 taverns. Executions of pirates at riverside locations continued well into the 19th century.
Find Execution Dock on the Map