We value the walls of our city – the vertical aspects of its historic architecture, the facades of the buildings which give London its distinctive special character. And yet the floor of our city, the streets between our buildings, are curiously valued to a much lesser extent, despite being equally rich in heritage.
London is a city rich in heritage. When people come to visit London, they don’t typically come to see its modern features which indeed are often derided. It is the historic elements which give London its real special character and charm. St Paul’s Cathedral, Georgian terraces, the clunky trains on the Bakerloo line or grand old Buckingham Palace. All these things form part of London’s urban environment, which make it so distinctive and ‘London’. And yet in the midst of all these things is a common thread which goes totally unnoticed by most.
What about the streets between London’s buildings? The ground upon which we walk every day? What about its history and heritage?
It is rather strange upon reflection that London’s roads and pavements receive such little attention when they form the backbone of historic London. Certainly the nature of the streets contributes just as much to a sense of place as the buildings on either side of them, and yet we as a society strangely seem to value the vertical aspects of the built environment far more than the horizontal. When buildings go up, come down, and new ones go up in their place, and even when changes in fashion have seen street surfaces come up and down, the boundaries of the streets, highways and pavements have remained essentially unchanged since they were marked out centuries ago.
But it’s not just the plan of the streets which makes them historically interesting. The use of materials and methods for constructing the streets themselves gives us just as much insight into the world of the Georgians, for example, as the familiar sight of a Georgian terrace façade does. And yet although we Londoners are outraged to see the demolition of a Georgian building, the erasing of the heritage of a Georgian street seems somehow to be less important. The walls of our city are more valuable to us than our floors, and an unfortunate result of this is that the historic floor of our city has been steadily eroded and today is perhaps under greater threat than ever.
So when does the history of our streets begin?
London began to become what we today call London in the Georgian Era. Right up until the start of the 18th century, London’s expansion was prohibited by Royal Proclamation, which was a declaration by the monarch that they would not permit London to grow any further. The royal hostility to a large metropolis stifled its growth, with the London of 1700 really being two cities – the City of Westminster, and the City of London. However after the execution of Charles I in 1649, the House of Commons became the new supreme power, so that by the start of the Georgian Era in 1714 there were no longer any reins on London’s growth. This proved to be important, and by the end of the Georgian Era in 1827 London had expanded to include all of what we might call Central London today – the area covered by the congestion zone. It makes sense to begin to examine the history of our streets at this point.
Up until the Georgian Era the typical method for surfacing the streets (if they were surfaced at all) was by cobblestone. Rounded pebbles would be set into the ground and the gaps filled with mortar. While the cars of today find little difficulty on such roads, we must remember that in Georgian London everything was driven by horse, and wheels were made from wood, perhaps with an iron rim at best. The result was a hazardous environment, a terrible din, and great difficulty in maintaining both the roads and the vehicles.
It is unclear how many roads had proper ‘pavements’. Illustrations of the time sometimes show pavements separated from roads by bollards, other times there are kerbstones, and sometimes there were no pavements at all. What we do know for certain is that by the 1760s Londoners were making a fuss about the poor state of the streets – both the surfacing and their cleanliness. The Cities of Westminster and London began to implement proper roads and pavements for their citizens.
But the question of what exactly should be used to surface the roads and pavements was not agreed upon and even today there is no consensus. Much was trial and error. Streets were often paved with ‘granite setts’, what some people might naively call cobbles but which are distinct. These were small rectangular blocks of granite set into the road and grouted. These pieces of granite were set perpendicular to the length of the road and were of a common size engineered to help horses’ hooves find traction. Although this was more effective than the use of cobblestones by providing a smoother surface, there were still problems. Certain types of granite would get smoother with wear until the surface almost became polished and impossibly smooth. Granite from Aberdeen seemed to be the preferred choice. But the daily hard wearing of horses’ hooves and rickety but heavy carts wore down the granite at an alarming rate which beyond making the surface essentially temporary, caused great amounts of dust to accumulate on the streets. Contemporary experiments in the City of London during the Victorian period put the wear on these granite setts at about 1.5mm/year, and the accumulation of dust was so profound that just as today we have daily street sweepers, Georgian and Victorian London had daily street ‘wetters’, who would go around and spray water onto the streets to attempt to stop the dust getting thrown up into the air and causing a particulate smog. Experiments on this strange dust found granite to be a large component of it.
Today when we think of an historic London street we are really thinking of a road surfaced in granite setts. Today they are unfortunately rare thanks to the advent of tarmac but perhaps what people don’t generally know is that in many cases the tarmac simply went over the top of a road surfaced in granite setts. In the same way that Pompeii was preserved beneath volcanic fallout, so in London sleeping beneath the unremarkable and typically modern roads of our city are miles of perfectly preserved historic streets. While tarmac was an important innovation to make travel by vehicles and bicycles easier, with the ‘detrafficisation’ of Central London and the routing of cyclists into Cycle Superhighways, we may see an opportunity to lift the tarmac and restore many of London’s streets to their historic splendour.
But far more curious and varied is the heritage of London’s pavements.
Much of the curiosity arises from questions which can be easily asked but not so easily answered, or to which answers are seemingly not yet known, perhaps a reflection of our lack of interest in the history of the floor of our city. A search into Google of London’s architecture will yield hundreds of websites of high quality, and weighty tomes such as the Survey of London. And yet the horizontal cousin of the very same architecture – the streets of London – yields not a single webpage of more than passing interest.
So let us begin exploring such questions.
First, who owns the pavements?
It seems like an easy question to answer but nested in this question is much history of interest. We might assume that essentially all of the pavement is publicly owned – or in other words, owned by the local council. But a curious aspect of London’s history means that actually our pavements are a patchwork of tens if not hundreds of thousands of tiny plots of land each belonging to different individuals. How can this be?
The answer begins, as usual, in the Georgian period.
It was almost ubiquitous in the Georgian Era to build terraces set back from the street, with a basement level visible from the street, with railings around it. If there is any particular reason why this was done I am not aware of it, although something perhaps relevant is that all architecture of the time was stringently adherent to a school of architecture called ‘Classical Architecture’. If we were Georgian, we would all understand exactly what this meant – a set of rules, an ancient tradition used to build anything. Indeed it was so ubiquitous that every architect was classically trained, and to build anything un-classical was highly unusual at the time. This is why ‘old’ buildings have so many similar features, and why Georgian terraces often look more or less identical with only minor variations.
The school of Classical Architecture was directly descended from ancient Roman and Greek practice, and as a result architects often looked to surviving examples in Roman and Greek cities, along with Italian examples during the Renaissance, which at the time was a fairly recent phenomenon in England. It became common in Italian cities to have a ‘fortified’ ground floor to protect nobles from the vicious vendettas which plagued the Italian peninsula. While this is only conjecture, it is entirely possible that architects in Georgian London wanted to evoke this idea of fortification by setting back their terraces from the street and protecting the ground floor by means of these railings and the open basement level, which made things much more difficult if one wanted to break in to the house. Originally there weren’t usually staircases to the basements on the exterior, so to break in one would have to get through the front door. This sole point of entry (as can be seen from many surviving examples) was itself often heavily fortified – front doors were often fashioned from seasoned oak with metal worked into the surface. Typically, even if one somehow found their way through this door, there would be a lengthy porch and a further fortified door to break through.
While it may seem slightly contrived to go to such effort to simply ‘evoke’ some ancient practice, the Georgians were all about that sort of thing, and the surviving architecture of that time speaks in a forgotten language rich in such allusions. Whatever happened, somebody saw the sense in taking such an approach as London was a fairly dangerous place to be and people wanted to feel protected in their homes anyway. The precedent set by whoever did this first would then have encouraged other architects to do the same, and the result was a city where almost every street was full of these terraces with open basements and railings.
Have you ever wondered what those strange grids of small glass squares are that are so often seen on London’s pavements? They mark the graves of London’s Georgian basements.
Over time there have been varying pressures which have led to what’s known in the trade as a ‘basement infill’. For example, Georgian terraces which have had their ground floors converted into shops (as almost every London ‘high street’ has) found it inconvenient to have an open basement – after all it meant customers couldn’t get up close to the shopfront to inspect the wares. In the post-war period it became extremely common (in part due to the lack of regulation) to cover over basement levels with concrete, and the glass squares helped to light the space below. It meant that the basement level could be used for storage but also the shops acquired a small space in front of their store on the street where they could place advertisements and stalls, along with tables and chairs.
Most Londoners wouldn’t take a second look at these concrete grids – often with the brand name ‘Luxcrete’ – thinking they were perhaps some silly choice of pavement surfacing. But in fact whenever you see one of these, it’s not actually public property – it is part of the property of the building behind it. Understanding this opens up explanations for various strange phenomena in the city. Take advertisement boards for example. It’s technically illegal to place these on public property, so placing it on the pavement is not permitted. But because these Luxcrete blocks aren’t public property, individuals can place their advertisement boards on there, just as an individual can place an advertisement board in their bedroom, if they wish to do so. Next time you are out in London, observe closely and you will find that essentially every single advertisement board is on one of these blocks – known in the trade as a ‘private forecourt area’– and if they’re not then it’s illegal.
Shop-owners new to London often get caught out by this. They perhaps see all the shops in the area putting out their own A-boards but don’t understand the unwritten code only allowing these boards on private land. They then decide to put one out themselves, even if they don’t have such a ‘private forecourt area’. Trying to explain to these people that it is not permitted on public property when they’re threatened with enforcement can evoke real disbelief and quite often leads to persistent breaches.
Now it wasn’t just direct ‘basement infills’ which have caused these strange street patterns. When Georgian buildings were demolished or lost in the war, the buildings that went up in their place were usually built ‘flush’ to the facade of their Georgian neighbours. This would also leave the land previously used as a Georgian basement surrounding the new building undeveloped, and this land was either converted into a new open basement for security (as was typical pre-war), but also would be covered over to provide a ‘private forecourt’.
The long and the short of this is that what we would typically call the pavement is in fact a huge patchwork of public and private land, a strange relic of the Georgian methods of building houses in the capital. The streets below our feet tell us just as much about the Georgians as do the buildings that survive, and in many cases these ‘private forecourts’ are the only thing left which tell us that once there was a Georgian house on that land.
But it is still an unanswered question as to why exactly these Luxcrete blocks became just so popular and became ubiquitous in such a short space of time. In some areas such as Seven Dials in Covent Garden, every frontage would have had an open basement of some type, with Victorian illustrations of the 1860s showing quite clearly that the basements at the time were perfectly preserved almost 200 years after they were built. This is significant because at the time, Seven Dials was already highly commercialised, and so the pressure to fill in these basements would have already arisen. And yet over the last century, there are only a handful of basements that haven’t been covered by these blocks. What happened to make these blocks just so popular, just so quickly? It is not a question which has yet seen thorough investigation.
Now let us consider the history of the surfacing of London’s pavements. Walking around London it is apparent that the truly public areas of the pavements have been surfaced in a very diverse number of ways. There is perhaps most commonly now square concrete blocks, but also tarmac and just plain concrete. Sometimes we see historic ‘York Stone’ flagstones, and it is quite easy to conjecture that once London must have been paved with these flagstones in its entirety, as they appear to be the only surviving historic pavement surfacing remaining. This evokes some irritation at the deduction that over the past century these glorious streets of York Stone must have been torn up to be replaced with concrete, in a similar fashion to how many of the glorious historic buildings of our city were torn down to be replaced with vertical concrete blocks. But is this myth true? What were London’s pavements originally surfaced with?
Strangely the utopia of universal York Stone pavements is an illusion, and that in fact in many instances pavements were simply surfaced with small wooden blocks.
Now there is hardly a single example remaining of this wooden surfacing which makes it such a surprise, but we do have tiny windows into the past which afford us a glimpse of this wooden-floored London. There is still a manhole cover on Farringdon Street for example which retains its wooden inlay although the road itself was long ago covered in tarmac. Not only were the pavements sometimes wooden but the road itself could be also. There were large variations between different districts, but the Parish of St George (in the Marylebone area) for example had 70% of its streets paved in wood during the 1890s. It was apparent that wooden surfaces were preferable for the long-term health of horses and also were less noisy than the only realistic alternative of granite.
But the question of how many of London’s pavements were wooden doesn’t seem to have been thoroughly investigated, although contemporary accounts of Central London in the early twentieth century do attest to widespread use of wood, in which case the introduction of concrete blocks and tarmac is not too terrible a crime. The conversion of our floors into concrete perhaps does represent genuine progress upon wooden floors, which unfortunately cannot be said of many of the concrete buildings being built simultaneously. It is yet another parallel story between the history of the architecture of the floor of London and its walls, but not one to which we have paid serious attention towards, in stark contrast to the controversy of concrete ‘monstrosities’.
In those days most roads were either paved with wooden or granite blocks. The word going round that a certain road or street was about to be resurfaced was the only signal needed for us to gather with our sacks and wait our chance to raid the old stacks of [wooden] blocks and bring home as many as possible. They were much cheaper than coal, but, after a week’s burning, the chimney became completely blocked by glutinous, foul-smelling tar, causing the rooms to fill up with smoke and fumes. The local chimney sweeps earned a bomb thanks to those blocks.Victor Gregg – ‘King’s Cross Kid – A London Childhood between the Wars’
Thanks to contemporary accounts, we need not conjecture about what became of these strange wooden pavements – traces of them still remain within our chimneys and in the sooty tar which pervades the nooks and crannies of London.
Between the pavements and the roads lie the kerbstones, which themselves were ubiquitously granite, and in most cases still remain to this day, in more or less exactly the same positions as they were originally lain. What can be said of them? When did they appear, what is their history?
Although kerbstones at first glance appear to be possibly the most mundane topic of discussion possible, the history of London’s kerbstones is in fact far more remarkable than anything yet discussed.
It is rather curious that while the architecture of the floor of our capital has transformed immensely over time – through basement infills, and widespread change in the surfacing of pavements and roads – the kerbstones delineating the boundaries of the roads have seemingly remained untouched for centuries. While everything else was subject to change and improvement, there’s not much that can be wrong with a kerbstone, especially a granite one. The architects of the capital chose a hard-wearing material, and its inherent quality has seen it survive through to the current day – although the philistinism and stupidity of our local authorities is now proving to be too great a foe for the continued survival of these important relics.
So when you are next out walking in London, cast down your gaze at the kerbstones beside you and you will eventually notice something rather odd.
Every so often there will appear a symbol or a letter carefully inscribed into the kerbstone. These symbols are quite evidently as ancient as the kerbs themselves, and vary quite significantly. What do they mean?
Stonemasons in times past were often illiterate but there was a strong ancient tradition of stonemasons marking their work. Each stonemason had their own symbol, and marking stones served two purposes – it would allow stonemasons to leave their identity upon works of architecture for posterity, but it also allowed people to single out masons who had done poor work, or good work as the case may be. This association with symbols is what spawned the Freemasons’ association (some might say obsession) with symbolism, as the Freemasons initially constituted a guild for stonemasons, and to this day involve themselves with large works of stonemasonry (for example with current large scale restoration work at Canterbury Cathedral), although quite typically it is not exactly clear what this involvement actually is.
This tradition of stonemasons marking their work manifests in strange ways. For example it has been found that stonemasons would often intentionally leave their marks in places which would never be seen, for example on the side of a stone which would end up entirely hidden. This only became apparent after the blitz destroyed Coventry Cathedral, and many marks of masons were found on stones in the rubble which had not been recognised before.
Extensive and interesting research suggests that many of the marks found on kerbstones in London (and the country) are in fact the marks of Georgian and Victorian masons, and in some cases even older. Due to the way in which they are distributed (with the same symbol appearing at regular intervals on a stretch of road, usually 11 to 14 kerbstones) it is thought that masons would lay the stones and then at the end of a day’s work mark where they had finished off. The distribution of these symbols throughout the capital has been described as a ‘hidden database’ revealing which masons worked where in the building of the capital – although we of course cannot tell exactly who the mason was, just that they were employed in different areas.
But these symbols are not solely the marks of masons – there are also a number of other symbols associated with different meanings, and it’s fair to say that nobody has satisfactorily answered the question of what they all mean. It seems that the builders of the city somehow guessed right that kerbstones would be long-lasting and chose to use them to communicate messages through the centuries.
There are also signs of ownership – for example there is a kerbstone with the seal of the admiralty inscribed upon it, due to an Elizabethan law which stipulated the Royal Navy must mark its seal upon all its property. There are also ‘benchmarks’ which are used by Ordnance Survey to indicate that the height above sea level of the mark is known to within a hundredth of a foot, and also ancient parish boundary markers which are rather more obvious.
It is rather unfortunate that today we are seeing much of this heritage simply chucked in the bin without much ado by local authorities that don’t know any better or simply couldn’t care less. This is a strange manifestation of the effects that today’s London property market and planning system is having upon our local councils.
Councils today derive quite a substantial income from granting planning permission. Upon granting planning permission, they can demand a payment from the developer which can be quite sizeable. For a large development it is not unusual for a council to receive millions of pounds.
The problem is that these payments are partitioned up and ring-fenced for certain things. Councils use this to fund any works that they want to do to London’s streets, but the problem is that they actually end up having too much money to spend on their streets. Any payments made by a developer should be spent within five years, or councils face having to give the money back. What then happens is councils instead dream up fairly useless projects so that they can spend all the money before needing to give it back, a typical project being something along the lines of ‘let us take up all the street surfacing in some area and replace it with brand new materials’. The West End Project is perhaps the perfect example of this, which has consumed almost £15M of planning permission funds.
One of the effects of this is that councils are taking up these centuries old kerbstones and replacing them with brand new ones as a way simply to get the money spent. This unfortunate situation means that we are not only seeing the ancient boundaries of London’s roads altered for the first time in centuries, but the marks left by our forefathers which have so far survived the centuries are being wiped clean from our streets. For the first time in history, we are seeing streets in London saying farewell to the last remnants of their heritage.
It is yet another way in which even now, the interrelation between London’s buildings and its streets is forming new history, although in this case the history we are making is in fact the destruction of the history which we have been so fortunate to inherit, before we have even yet fully understood its meaning.
You can help in the protection of our street heritage by sending this article to your local councillors. With a greater appreciation and understanding of the importance of the heritage of our streets, perhaps we will be less likely to see pointless projects erasing our history.