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Edwardian London: IV Piccadilly
Posted on Jun 23, 2005 - 02:24 AM by Bill McCann

In 1905 the Pall Mall Magazine published a "little book [which] will appeal to all who wish to possess what is really a portfolio, in a handy form, of beautiful drawings and photographs of the marvellous New LONDON which is rising up around them day by day." The first part of the guide was effectively a guide book for the Londoner and the visitor alike, but a guide book with a difference, as it includes architect's drawings of the many new buildings and streets which were still at the planning stage. Our guide now takes us for a walk along fashionable Piccadilly, lately widened, to Hyde Park Corner where we hear anecdotes of the Iron duke and see the last surviving and incongruous "Carrier's Rest."

Hyde Park Corner and the new Piccadilly


Incontestably, the one thing which has served to dignify Piccadilly at its western end, and gives it a new lease of beauty, is the widening process which has lopped off a slice of the Green Park, and turned it to eminent public advantage. It is one of the many instances where the County council has exerted itself for the beautification of London, and there have been few cases where the Office of Works and the other bodies concerned have so readily assented to the plan.

The new Piccadilly looking east.
It meant the uprooting of about sixty trees, and a certain amount of engineering in the matter of mains and street levels, but the amount of land surface changed from grass to asphalt was only half an acre after all, and it has left a roadway 125 feet wide at the part where space is particularly needed. The work cost 13,500 [About 900,000 in today's money.], and the labour was divided between three bodies the County Council, which undertook the actual widening, and the transfer of the Park railing; the Office of Works, which made the trees its province; and the Westminster City council, which undertook to keep the road and footpath in repair for the future. Thus, by an entente cordiale on a strictly parochial scale, a work was carried out which meant a vast deal of difference to the West of London, and at a cost which compares favourable with any other work of similar importance.

There are other widening ideals in connection with Piccadilly, and notably the setting back of the buildings on its northern side; but this would cost at least a million and a half sterling, and for such heroic measures the authorities are not yet prepared.

Piccadilly is a barrier, as it were, between an almost Royal seclusion and the fashionable, shop-besieging, sauntering crowds of every day. Defoe once said that Piccadilly bade "fair in time to be a street of palaces," and the prophecy has since been justified. But it is more than this, for, young as it is, compared with Fleet-street and the Strand, it contains as many social, literary, and historic associations as any street in London we had almost said Europe. To the east of Burlington House itself a treasury of famous memories we have the Albany, where Lord Macaulay was a tenant in chambers for some years, and there are booksellers now living in London who remember him swooping down upon them before breakfast, eagerly rummaging through Civil War History, and then having a big consignment delivered at his door in the Albany.

At the other end of Piccadilly we have Lord Byron's old house, where he dwelt just after his marriage, and where he wrote "The Siege of Corinth." it is in occupation now, and if we want a veritable Byronic shrine, we shall find it at Mr. Murray's, the publisher, in Albemarle-street, not far away. There, if you be a privileged guest, you may compare the famous portraits of the poet, see the room where he first met Scott, and warm your hands at the fireplace where Tommy Moore consigned the Byron memoirs to the flames, at a loss of 2,000 [About 130,000 today.] to himself and Mr. Murray, and an infinite gain to Byron's chequered reputation.

Half way along Piccadilly, not far from Devonshire House, is Lord Palmerston's old house not eh Naval and Military Club and its library is also a shrine of history in its way, for its walls once listened to the secrets of European diplomacy. It was the boudoir of Lady Pam, that vivacious divinity who figures so agreeably in the canvases of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Almost opposite is Arlington-street, with the houses of several well-known peers, and one of them distinguished above the rest because it is the town house of the Cecils and the home of the late Marquis of Salisbury. Other venerable memories gather round No. 132, once the home of John Bright; and the site of Gloucester House, at the corner of park-lane, which was, while it stood, the residence of the late Duke of Cambridge. Gloucester House was for a time occupied by Lord Elgin, and here the famous Elgin marbles, which with great public spirit and at much personal loss, his lordship had rescued from destruction and secured or the British nation, were first displayed after their arrival in this country.

Traffic at Hamilton Place.

The house at the west corner of Hamilton-place is notable as having been the residence of the great Lord Chancellor Eldon during the last years of his life. No. 2, Hamilton-place is also redolent with aristocratic memories, having been successively the residence of the Dukes of Bedford, Sutherland and Argyll; and No. 4 was occupied by the Duke of Wellington during the brief period between the close of the Peninsular War and the opening of the Waterloo campaign.

Hyde Park Corner, with its handsome arch at the head of constitution Hill (virtually a replica of the Arch of Titus at Rome), and the equestrian statue by Boehm of the great Duke of Wellington, which used to crown it, is one of the most picturesque public spaces in Europe. The arch which leads into Hyde Park is the work of the same designer, Decimus Burton; but, of course, both arches require statuary to complete hem, and give them the true Roman effect.

St. George's Hospital opposite is a building that appeals rather to the heart than the eye, for, like most of its fellows and contemporaries n London, it was built to be serviceable, without much regard to outward charm. It even exceeds all competitors by the way in which it ignores and stands in contrast with the picturesqueness of its environment. Apsley House is another eyesore to the fastidious. It was built from designs by the brothers Adam, but subsequent enlargement and alterations have rendered it unworthy of their reputation, and at present it is a poor index of the gratitude which made it a present from the nation to the victor at Waterloo. It contains several fine pictures be Velasquez, acquired by the Iron Duke during and after his peninsular campaigns. It was built by Lord Chancellor Apsley (hence the name), and it was in 1820 tha it was presented to the Iron duke. In the Waterloo Gallery, which is an imposing and lofty hall, a hundred feet in length, the Duke used to gather round him, on the battle anniversary, a party of his old comrades and supporters in arms. Year by year, what with age and wounds, and the inactivity of peace, the number gradually grew less, but the festivity was maintained every year until the Duke's death in 1852.

Effect of the widening at Constitution Hill.
There are many memories of he Duke, even among men now living, particularly how he would mount his white charger and ride down to the Horse Guards or the House of Lords. During the last years of his life a small crowd of sight-seers might constantly be seen of an afternoon in the neighbourhood of Apsley House, waiting to catch a glimpse of the Duke as he rode to take exercise in Hyde park; and never could he stir abroad without being followed by the plaudits of admiring crowds. The duke of Wellington was unquestionably the most popular man in London; yet, with a somewhat bitter irony, as a recent writer has reminded us, he insisted on retaining at the windows of Apsley House the bullet-proof iron shutters with which he had encased them at the time when opposition to the Reform Bill had made him extremely unpopular and his windows had been broken by a hostile mob.

Hazlitt used to say that the setting-down of the stage-coach passengers in his day was "the finest sight in the metropolis," and here, alone of the many resorts around London, one may see more evidence than anywhere else that tells us of the old English passion for horsemanship. It is as if the spirit of the old Duke still survived in the daily exercises and equestrian companionship of Rotten Row. Another curious survival in this wise, though lower in degree, is an indication of the enormous carrier traffic that used to ply in and out of London, on its western side, before the railroad was invented.

On the south side of the street, between park-lane and Down-street, there long stood a curious narrow stone table. This is one of the last, perhaps quite the last, existing examples of the carriers' rests on which carriers and porters in days when the bulk of London's carrier trade was done by hand, were glad to deposit their burdens for a brief rest. It was erected in its present position in 1861 by Mr. R. A. Slaney, who was for twenty-six years member of Parliament for Shrewsbury. The days of its practical usefulness were, of course, by that time long over, and Mr. Slaney's object was merely to preserve an interesting relic of old London. It says much for the love of continuity that in all the vicissitudes of London thoroughfares so quaint a survival of the older ways of men should have lasted until to-day.

New hotels, like the Walsingham, have their day, and are replaced; and a home of popular melody, like St. James's Hall one might almost call it the Memnonium of London disappears to make way for new gigantic caravanserai. Yet the stone shelf and resting place of carriers dead and gone is allowed to cumber a busy footway, and remind us feelingly of the countless men and beasts that have trod these very pavements a couple of centuries or more.

Let us conclude with another recollection, this time of a literary turn. There is a passage in Fielding's most important novel, [i.e. Tom Jones.] where Squire Western enters London with Sophia, and halts at a tavern called the "Hercules Pillars." It was a fitting name for this westerly gate, as it were, to the Mediterranean of London traffic, and the classic name, so redolent of times when scholars were called in to give a name to popular streets and buildings, has disappeared, along with the tavern, which used to stand, we believe, on the very site of Apsley House.

"The squire sat down," we read, "to regale himself over a bottle of wine with his parson and the landlord of the Hercules Pillars, who, as the squire said, would make an excellent third man, and would inform them of the news of the town; for, to be sure, says he, he knows a good deal, since the horses of many of 'the quality' stand at his door."
Travellers no longer halt there to refresh their horses, but the "quality" are still in evidence, and Piccadilly is still among their favourite haunts.

Hyde Park Corner with Welllington's statue in place.


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