'From Stage to Platform:
The Metamorphosis of the Strand Theatre 1830 - 1905', Paul Hadley
London Passenger Transport 1984 No12 April, p588-593
A permanent exhibition studio for panoramaic paintings, a chapel, a drama school, a theatre and a tube station might appear to have little in common. But they have all occupied the site of what is currently Aldwych underground station on the Piccadilly line branch from Holborn. Research for a new book on the branch has revealed some remarkable pre-history which isrecounted here.
The Great Northern & Strand Railway Company, which had originally promoted the line in 1899, had not intended to site a station there. As can be seen from the accompanying diagram, this area of London changed greatly at the turn of the century. The area's metamorphosis occurred as a result of the LCC's most extensive road development scheme in central London, the construction of Kingsway and AIdwych. The scheme had a significant bearing on the construction of the line between Holborn and Strand because the line was due to run for the most part under the new Kingsway, and consequently the railway company's bill carried a clause delaying construction of this portion of the railway until the road was built. These circumstances probably contributed to the later opening of the Strand branch on 30 November 1907 as compared with the main line which opened on 15 December 1906. The tunnelling was apparently completed by July 1906 and October 1905 respectively, and it has been suggested that the 'main line' was pressed into early service to catch the Christmas shopping rush, so widening the wait for Strand to open. Indeed, certain stations were not ready: South Kensington, Down Street (Mayfair) and Covent Garden opening on 8 January, 15 March and 11 April 1907 respectively. Once, too, the Great Northern & Strand scheme had been merged with the Brompton & Piccadilly Circus proposal to create the core of what is now the Piccadilly Line, the remaining spur to Strand, with its more limited traffic potential, must have been farther down the new company's list of priorities.
As finally determined by Act of Parliament, Strand station (renamed Aldwych on 9 May 1915) was located on the site of the Royal Strand Theatre at 168-9 Strand. The new station replaced the old theatre, which had about forty years previously been one of the more popular in London. It had not however always been successful and indeed had had a very chequered history.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century a Mr Robert Barker obtained a patent (number 1612, 19 June 1787), valid for fourteen years, which described a new way of displaying landscape paintings. In the words of the specification, the idea was by drawing and painting and a proper disposition of the whole, to perfect an entire view of any country or Situation as it appears to an observer turning quite round .... so as to make observers .... feel as if really on the very spot'. Put simply, a picture painted, as it were, all round the inner surface of a large shallow cylinder, with the observer(s) at its centre. Barker also specified in some detail various methods of display and lighting that would assist the sense of illusion. To all this he coined the name 'La Nature a Coup d'Oeil', but this was soon supplanted by 'panorama'*1
After exhibiting in London and Edinburgh Robert Barker set up a permanent exhibition at Leicester Square. In 1801, when the patent had expired, Barker's son Thomas Edward Barker quarrelled with him and left to set up his own rival panorama with a Mr Ramsey Richard Reinagle. 'The site they chose was an area of ground behind the south side of Strand, two doors to the west of Surrey Street, with a frontage at number 168 and 169 Strand (the building's address was usually given as number 169.) The con-struction of this new panorama house was supervised by Barker and it opened as Reinagle and Barker's New Panorama in 1803. Its main attraction was a view by Reinagle of Rome and the surrounding area (a popular choice of subject) , as seen from the Villa Lodovici on Pincian Hill. Later there was another panorama of Rome as seen from the Tower of the Capitol.
Robert Barker died in 1806 and, not surprisingly, bequeathed his Leicester Square panorama to his other son Henry A Barker, who with a partner, Mr John Burford, was able to buy out his rival in the Strand in 1816. The two panorama houses were thus jointly run until 1826, from which time John Burford (and his brother Robert Burford after John's death in 1827) managed it until 1830 when it was decided to close the site in the Strand and concentrate solely on that at Leicester Square.
The building was used for a short while in 1631 as a dissenting chapel by wandering sectarians, but was then acquired by Mr Benjamin Lionel Rayner, a celebrated actor. In just seven weeks, and at a cost of £3000, he and his architect Charles Broad transformed it into a theatre. It boasted a dress circle, a first circle, twelve private boxes and a pit which together gave a capacity of approximately 1500, and was decorated in white, silver and gold. The preview was held on 15 January 1832 and the theatre opened as Rayner's New Subscription Theatre the following day. At that time, however, the battle between the unlicensed and licensed theatres (known as 'patent houses') was at its height because the latter enjoyed monopolies which they jealously protected; and since Hayner's theatre was unlicensed, it soon found itself embroiled in legal difficulties. One restriction on an unlicensed house was that it could not sell theatre tickets at the door, and thus the theatre was obliged, for a long time, to sell its tickets anywhere other than at the theatre itself. Tickets were available, at two, three and four shillings, from the Box Office at 3 Surrey Street (on the east side of Surrey Street, therefore not physically connected to the theatre), and from the following: Adam Dickson, biscuit baker, two doors way at 167 Strand; Thomas Goodwin, fish monger, opposite at 295 Strand; S Ebers & Co, booksellers and librarians, 27 Old Bond St; C Wright, wine merchant, 70 Haymarket; H Wray, music seller, 37 Haymarket; and William Sams, bookseller, 1 St James's Street.
The first play performed was, perhaps more than prophetically, called 'Struggles at Starting' and indeed only few weeks later the star actress Harriet Waylett took over as lessee and the theatre was renamed The New Strand (Subscription) Theatre. It closed in November 1832 owing to lack of public support, and was reopened in January or February 1833 by Fanny Kelly (who also started her drama school there) as the New Strand Theatre, only to be forced to close by the patent houses in October. It seems the new owners, Mr James Russell and Mr Benjamin Wrench, had put on the playbill "the public are respectfully informed that money will be taken on the door'. The Chancellor acted swiftly, no doubt after a tip-off from one of the patent houses, and closed the theatre a week later since it was still un-licensed. The theatre returned in December, this time with the money being taken at the window! During the following year, the enterprising Harriet Waylett attempted every imaginable expedient to sidestep the patent laws. The adjoining confectioner's establishment which occupied part of the premises at 169 Strand was annexed and the public were given free admission on the purchase of an ounce of rose lozenges for four shillings or half an ounce of peppermint drops for two shillings for admission to the pit. A later ploy was to give free admission to people purchasing tickets to the Royal Victoria Theatre
The theatre which was at this stage undergoing a rejuvenation, was once again closed at the behest of the patent houses in March 1835, and the company brought before the magistrates at Bow Street. The theatre was reopened on a more stable footing on 25 April 1836. It at last possessed a licence, which was not dissimilar to that of the Adelphi (called the Strand Theatre between 1814 and 1819) and the Olympic (since closed). The theatre was jointly managed by Mr Douglas Jerrold and his father-in-law Mr James Hammond. A gallery was added in 1839 during an enlargement programme. A succession of unsuccessful owners followed, and the theatre was renamed the Strand Theatre in 1850. On 25 April 1951, the then owner William Copeland renamed it Punch's' Playhouse (Strand Theatre). The theatre had by 1852 reverted to being called the Strand Theatre, although this did little to improve business. The theatre was taken over by William Swanborough and was reconstructed and redecorated at a cost of £7000 in 1858. It opened in its new form as the Royal Strand Theatre on 5 April 1858, and at last enjoyed some success. H J Byron wrote his burlettas for Ada Swanborough, the manager's daughter, and these achieved great popularity. The theatre was further reconstructed in 1865, reopening on 18 November 1865, again supervised by the Swanborough family. Less than a year later, on 21 October 1866, a fire occurred which led to yet more reconstruction.
In 1878 parliament imposed more stringent fire regulations for theatres, which in London the Metropolitan Hoard of Works was required to implement. This turned out to take some time, and it was not until a disastrous fire occurred at the Ring Theatre in Vienna in December 1881, resulting in a large loss of life, that a thorough survey of London theatres was carried out. As a consequence of this the Royal Strand Theatre closed for extensive reconstruction on 29 July 1882, largely to improve access to and from the auditorium. The entrances and exits on Surrey Street, which gave access to the pit, were enlarged, and an emergency exit to Strand Lane was provided from mezzanine level. The theatre reopened on 18 November 1882, but was not a financial success. The theatre site, encompassing 7523 square feet, was put on the market in November 1892, but was withdrawn after a bid of £41,000 failed, rent being £1850 per year for a then unexpired term of two years. This reprieve allowed the theatre to achieve its longest run when a musical play, 'A Chinese Honeymoon' by George Dance and Howard Talbot, ran for 1075 performances between 1901 and 1904.
By this time the general environment in the Strand area had become somewhat unsavoury. Until the sixteenth century the area outside the city boundary to the west of Temple Bar was little more than fields punctuated by narrow lane, with the village. of Holborn, Charing and St Giles. (present day spellings) nearby. Great mansions then began to be erected, particularly along the lane known as Strand, and were occupied by the aristocratic and the wealthy. As time went by more and more building took place of an increasingly less salubrious nature until about 1690 when the area was a maze of streets and completely built up. As the population increased property values decreased, the well-to-do moved away, and the gradual degeneration resulted in what by the early nineteenth century was destined to be one of the capital's most notorious rookeries. During this century it became increasingly obvious that a massive slum clearance would be required and it was desired to couple this with the construction of a new traffic route from Holborn to the Strand - the first firm scheme being put forward as early as 1836. The main failing of the scheme was its tremendous expense and in spite of numerous modifications the idea was not vigorously pursued. Authority was finally given to the London County Council in 1899 after Parliament had accepted the principle of 'betterment'; the scheme finally adopted was that of Nr Frederick Harrison, chairman of the LLC's improvements committee, and was devised, in 1892. The cost of the scheme, incidentally, is reported to have been some £4 .5 million. The LCC had in 1900 run a limited competition with eight invited architects*2 to design the elevations of the building. fronting the road. The central idea was for a wide new thoroughfare linking Holborn and Strand, terminating in a large crescent-shaped site at the southern end. It was hoped that the building on the new road would share a common style of facade, despite the fact that this was to have been opposed on buildings none of which had a fixed purpose at the time. This idea, not surprisingly, did not materialise for property speculators were reluctant to build under such conditions. The LCC finally laid the idea to rest. Another plan which did not fructify was to site County Hall on the crescent at the southern end of the road.
The Great Northern & Strand Railway Company promoted in 1899 a new 'tube' railway in twin-tunnels from Wood Green, and the Strand terminus surface station was to be built approximately half a mile south of Holborn, in the parish of St Clement Danes. The Great Northern & Strand Railway Act (62 & 63 Vic cap cciii), which received Royal Assent on 1 August 1899, stated that the railway terminated near the north end of Craven Building, not far from the Olympic Theatre, at a point seventeen yards measured from the south-west side of Stanhope Street, opposite the north west side of Holles Street. These streets were swept away by the construction of Kingsway although, as can be seen from the map, this site corresponds to the northernmost point of the crescent that forms Aldwych. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra opened the 'Kingsway' on Wednesday 18 October 1905 when road, if not property, construction was more or less completed (actually the new streets were not quite ready and remained closed to vehicular traffic for a few more days). But in the intervening six years the dormant Great Northern & Strand company had amalgamated with the separately promoted Brompton & Piccadilly Circus Railway. This had occurred in 1902 as part of a programme of co-ordinated planning by an American-backed financial syndicate, headed by Mr Charles Tyson Yerkes, who drew the two schemes together. The result was the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway, to run from Finsbury Park to Hammersmith.
The mechanics of this was that a draft agreement was formed in September 1901, and the Great Northern & Strand Railway was purchased for £131,016 on 6 November 1901. Under the new control, fresh impetus was put into the companies and towards the end of1902 two separate bills were submitted and these allowed for the joining of the two concerns by means of a new portion of line extending the Brompton & Piccadilly Circus Railway so as to meet the Great Northern & Strand Railway at a junction at Holborn. The resulting Acts were in themselves by far the most significant in the history of the Strand line, for it left the section to the south of Holborn a short and perhaps unwanted spur to the main line. The Brompton & Piccadilly Circus Railway Company's minutes for 21 November 1902 state:
The Solicitor of the Company made the following Report:
BROMPTON & PICCADILLY CIRCUS RAILWAY ACT 1902
To report that this Act received the Royal Assent on the 18th November inst, By Section 63 the company's name is changed to the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway Company.
GREAT NORTHERN & STRAND RAILWAY ACT 1902
To report that this Act received the Royal Assent on the 8th August last and that by Section 40 the undertaking powers and liabilities of the Great Northern & Strand Railway Company have been transferred to and vested in and imposed upon the Company as from the date of the passing of the Brompton and Piccadilly Circus Railway Act 1902, viz. the 18th November inst.
The Great Northern and Strand Bill had also proposed an extension to the branch described thus:
The present bill is also intended to provide for an extension of the southern end of the authorised line along under the eastern portion of the crescent shaped building site belonging to the council, crossing the Strand at right angles, passing down Norfolk Street, under the road called 'The Approach' immediately to the Northwest of the Temple Station of the Metropolitan District Railway. The whole of the Station and part of the roadway known as 'The Approach' are included in the limits of deviation and it is intended to form a connection between the existing and the intended station.
This projection failed to be approved; it is understood to have been opposed by the LCC, the Duke of Norfolk and other landowners.
A second and more ambitious attempt to make something of the branch was made in 1905 when powers were sought to extend the twin tunnels to the junction of Surrey Street and Howard Street, and then, by way of a single tunnel under the Thames, to York Road, Waterloo, to form a combined station with the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway. The latter part of the scheme failed to receive parliamentary approval. Indeed, even the part of the line that was approved met with resistance. The new alignment continued directly below the crescent block of land inside AIdwych/Strand where the enlarged tunnels for the station platforms were to be. The LCC objected that the crown of the tunnels would be at the most 90 feet from the surface of the ground; and as it had always anticipated that buildings of an exceptional size end weight would be erected, it was felt that the effect of a tube railway beneath would be to depreciate seriously the value of the land.
Despite these objections, and the deletion of the tube link to Waterloo, construction of the truncated line was allowed, with the Strand station building to be sited on the rather curious 'L' shaped site where the Strand Theatre stood, on the corner of Surrey Street and Strand. The Strand redevelopment was now almost accomplished; on the north side opposite, the new AIdwych and Kingsway had come into being. The theatre closed, on 13 May 1905, with the last play, a musical by Howard Talbot entitled 'Miss Wingrove', running for a few performances only from 5 May. The Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway acquired the land and the theatre was demolished shortly after 21 October 1905, when construction of the new railway station began.
It is ironic that in order to build the new station, which during its early days attempted to cater for late-night theatregoers with a special train, a theatre was demolished. The branch has always been lightly trafficked and proposals for its closure were made as early as 1933 and have continued ever since. It is possible that should the line be closed the site would be redeveloped. The proposals in the 1960s and 1970s for the Waterloo extension and the Fleet Line involved very major alterations of the station, including the resiting of the booking hall.
The author would be extremely grateful to hear from anyone able to afford information on the branch; and can be contacted via the Editor of London Passenger Transport at the address shown inside the front cover.
*1 The arrangement is better seen than described, and readers may wish to visit Room 417 in the Victoria & Albert Museum s Henry Cole Wing, where a full-size panorama of Rome painted by caracciola in 1824 is exhibited in ideal conditions.
*2 The architects were Reginald Bloomfield, William Flockhart, Sir Ernest George, Mervyn MacCartney, E W Mountfield, Leonard Stokes, Ernest Runtz, and the winner, Henry T Hare. The judges were W E Riley, the superintending architect of the LCC, and Norman Shaw RA.