Holborn Viaduct

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This stupendous Victorian construction has reached its 150th year. The reason for its construction was to enable a completely level route from Bank to Holborn without descending to the Fleet Valley. Its often not realised there are two parts to this scheme, the much bigger bridge over Farringdon Street, and a considerably smaller crossing over Shoe Lane. The latter hasn’t really got any embellishments like the main one, though it does have original stone pillars on the south side which are marked with stone tablets, one of which is now illegible.

Nearby Blackfrairs bridge was opened on the same day as Holborn Viaduct. It was a case of Queen Victoria killing two birds with one stone! The opening of both was performed on 6th November 1869.

When the Royal Opening was officiated Holborn Viaduct wasn’t even completed. One of the staircase lodges was still incomplete as the picture below shows.

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The Royal Opening 6th November 1869. Note the unfinished staircase lodge.

Holborn Viaduct was actually something like forty years in planning! The scheme was originally mooted as one that would have benefited the construction of the new London Bridge. The dip down into the Fleet valley was seen as something of a perennial nuisance. It is said the works were finally prompted when the London Chatham & Dover railway built its new line through the Farringdon area.

Up to then the various proposals for a substantial railway station (one of the many proposals was to be the huge Central City Railway Terminus, another the London Grand Junction Railway Terminus) had not come to fruition. Had a terminus indeed been built it would have scuppered any attempts at improvements to the area’s roads, especially around Holborn Hill and Skinner Street where it was desired there be a level route between Newgate Street and High Holborn.

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The Central City Railway Terminus plans of 1842. Source: Twitter

Holborn Hill was said to be 1 in 15 at its maximum. Its quite steep for a Central London street. The following passage from Observer for the 20th November 1864 tells us something of the horrors of horse draw traffic using Holborn Hill:

The great traffic of the city of London is from east to west, and to accommodate this there are at present but two leading lines – those by way of Holborn Hill and Fleet Street. The steep ascents of Holborn Hill and Skinner Street are wholly unsuited for the vehicular traffic which passes over them, and no person can pass along these streets without witnessing the delays which are caused, and the wasteful expenditure of horse flesh and the cruelty to animals which the ascent of these streets invovle.

I have never seen a foundation stone for the works and neither have I seen anyone else write about this so it seems the foundation stone no longer exists. However the inscription on the stone can be found in news reports of the day and this one is from The Observer for 2nd June 1867. Clearly the paper had an advance preview of the foundation stone:

This chief stone of the Holborn Valley Viaduct was laid the 3rd day of June, 1867, by Thoms Henry Fry, Esq, Deputy Chairman of the Improvement Committee of the Corporation off the City of London. The Right Hon. Thomas Gabriel, Lord Mayor; W. Haywood, engineer; Messrs. Hill and Kelly, contractors.

A different report says a foundation stone was laid at the base of the Farringdon bridge on 6th January 1867. Who knows there may have been two lots of foundation stones….

Its often said Holborn Viaduct was the one of the very first road flyovers. In a lot of ways that is sort of what its was, although its not really a flyover in the truest sense. Its not so terribly different from other places like Archway or nearby Rosebery Avenue where the lie of the land required a road crossing another below.

In fact the earlier plans for the improvement here entailed far more of what we would today call a real flyover – not a combination of viaducts and bridges which was ultimately built. As it stands Holborn Viaduct is simply a structure that exploits differences in levels of land by keeping the main route as level as possible and that is why its more correctly called a viaduct.

The following picture shows us what it could have looked like and this by all means does indeed look like a flyover although again it isn’t exactly such. However the fact it ‘flew’ over another main road was at the time an impressive sight whilst having ramps down either side to connect with the road below and I must say this was a very unusual design for its time.

View of Hatton Garden, c1865

Early plans for a level roadway with ramps down either side of it to Farringdon Street. Source: Flickr

Clearly the change in plans was thought more practical. Instead of compromising the roadway width as the above plans would have done, the slip roads would in fact be utilised by way of the use of Snow Hill and Charterhouse Street (to be built as part of the scheme) allowing road traffic to reach Farringdon Road with ease.

The design soon changed to a full width viaduct, whilst the crossing over Farringdon Road was intended to be a single arch bridge. That was soon changed too and William Haywood drew up the final designs for what became a rather elaborate triple arched structure complete with statues and lions and dragons.

In short, instead of something that was radically new, what was built was simply an enhanced use of existing technologies. Viaducts were by now quite numerous in London, having been used to great effect since the opening of the London and Greenwich Railway in 1836. But let’s be warned – the provision of subways and arches within the viaduct itself wasn’t exactly something new. The Metropolitan Railway had employed the same technique to an extent several years earlier when it built its underground railway.

Clearly Holborn Viaduct was an enhanced use of existing engineering knowledge. Thats not to say it was rubbish. It wasnt. It was a stupendous job given the scale of the task. And today, given the time to explore the structure in every detail, it turns out to be most fascinating. The ironwork, the dragons, and the many faces sculptured in stone. Look at the statues, they’re more than just that. Look at the lettering, the quality of the font, the smoothness of the metal surfaces, the little details etc.

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The Holborn Viaduct Committee posing for the camera. Source: Twitter

One of the problems with the use of cast iron for the bridge was that it cracked almost immediately. The columns were found to be in serious need of repair just a couple of months later. Various opinions were given as to why the cracking occurred, including the viaduct moving slightly, expansion/contraction and also poor foundations. One important observation however was that it was thought the cast iron columns should have been placed upon rollers at the top of the granite columns to allow for movement. Instead these were ‘encastres’ meaning the cast iron was simply embedded into the granite columns without any thought for want of flexibility.

In terms of the buildings at each corner of the main Farringdon bridge, there were four lodges providing stair access between the upper and lower levels and each of these lodges too had their adornments including more dragons – not forgetting the knights. Each lodge was in turn named after a former Mayor of the City of London. These are Sir Thomas Gresham, Henry Fitz Elwyn, Sir William Walworth and Sir Hugh Myddleton and each had their own statue of the different Mayors. Above each of these was the City of London’s coat of Arms. These were the only buildings to stand alongside Holborn Viaduct as soon as it was finished. However in a few short years the rest of the viaduct itself was soon lined with buildings.

Considering the other aspects of Holborn Viaduct, Snow Hill and Charterhouse Street are often discussed in relation to the entire scheme because the intent of these was to provide road access from the viaduct itself down to Farringdon Road. What few say however is that St. Andrews Street leading down from High Holborn to Shoe Lane was too part of the scheme.

It means we have three roads leading down from the viaduct into the Fleet valley. So why did they not build a fourth road to give it some balance? There were indeed plans for a fourth road. This would have gone from the junction forming Giltspur Street, Old Bailey and Newgate Street and down to Farringdon Street somewhere about Old Seacoal Lane. It didn’t get built. Instead the older Fleet Lane (with its cavernous dip underneath Holborn Viaduct Station became the unlikely alternative – and it was not a very good one at that because it was narrow and twisted and turned.

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Fleet Lane in its last years of use. This scene is from the 1970 film The Walking Stick. Limeburner Lane had come into use and its on the left. Source: Reel Streets

As the above picture shows, Fleet Lane first went under Holborn Viaduct station itself. But it had to go deeper to get under the Snow Hill lines and it was pretty cavernous in fact judging from the photographs I have seen of this.

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Approximately the same view today as seen on Google Streets

Fleet Lane no longer exists however there’s the modern Limeburner Lane and next to it is the much newer St. George’s Court. The latter does use part of the Fleet Lane alignment – at least it gives us the sense of where Fleet Lane once led below Holborn Viaduct station and thence down to Farringdon Road. The bit nearby known as Old Fleet Lane was part of this former through route.

In terms of the missing fourth road, this means Holborn Viaduct wasnt even completed anyway – and as built did not even perform the functions that were envisaged. Perhaps the Victorians were not too fussed about that, who wanted to go down there anyway? Its said just a small amount of traffic crossing Holborn Viaduct would want to go down to Farringdon Road, and three access roads were certainly more than enough! If one reads the quote a bit further down the page clearly the Victorians thought more about the traffic leading towards Oxford Street than they did that going down to Farringdon Road!

Anyway, the reason for the non-building of that fourth road most definitely too had something to do with the London Chatham and Dover Railway’s Snow Hill lines which were built in 1866.

You see, this other fourth connecting road would have had to go down so far, then climb up again to cross the Snow Hill Lines (which were at that point ascending towards Ludgate Hill) and seeing it was a bit of a faff to try and fit it all in the Victorians clearly didn’t bother!

It was either that or build a bridge for the railway to cross the new road. Fleet Lane by comparison was a narrow lane and it was easily able to take an almighty dip under the Snow Hill lines. The reason for that was the railway had considered Fleet Lane as part of their plans when they built their new line. Fleet Lane was given its own set of arches so the railway could pass over it. What this means is there was a ready made alternative of sorts. And that’s why Holborn Viaduct didn’t get its fourth access road.

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Holborn Viaduct under construction. Look closely at the houses on the far side and one can see the valley was originally much deeper than it is now. Source: Twitter

We come now to speak of one of the greatest and most successful works ever undertaken in the city of London — the Holborn Valley improvements, an undertaking which will ever be quoted as a notable example of the energy and public spirit of our time. We have already spoken of the inconvenience and disagreeableness of the approach to the City from the west by Holborn. To avoid the dangerous descent of Holborn Hill, it was at last resolved to construct a viaduct and high-level bridge over Farringdon Street, and so to supplant Skinner Street, and form a spacious and pleasant thoroughfare connecting the City with that great Mediterranean of western traffic, Holborn and Oxford Street. This was done after long consultation, the consideration of many different schemes, and many attempts, not always successful, to reconcile conflicting interests. The works were commenced in May, 1863, and if it was more than six years before the valley was bridged over, and the viaduct opened to the public, we must consider the gigantic nature of the undertaking, and the delays in effecting the demolition of the old structures and roadway, embarrassed, too, by much litigation. The cost of the improvements considerably exceeded two millions. Source: British History

Apparently the roads in those days were dangerous. When we read the above text and the very words ‘to avoid the dangerous descent of Holborn Hill’ (which stood on the west side) it must be a puzzle because as far as we can see the descents afforded by Snow Hill, Charterhouse Street, St. Andrews Lane etc are not that dramatic. Exactly!

However one of the reasons for Holborn Viaduct wasnt just the building of a bridge across the valley. It was a comprehensive scheme covering a lot of other things of which the viaduct was only part. One of those schemes was the improvement of the roads in the valley including Farringdon Road itself, which was raised considerably above its former alignment. That means its not possible to envisage the topology as it once was, but certainly in the older days it was quite a dip down from Holborn into the Fleet valley.

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A good view of Holborn Viaduct before the Queen opened it. Note how much further down the older Farringdon Road was.

What Holborn Viaduct did as part of the greater scheme of things was to afford a more convivial network of roads about the Holborn area. Simply looking at the adjacent roads (such as Shoe Lane) and saying this is how deep the valley went in those days is quite wrong. The original valley went deeper than this.

There are in fact photographs that show how deep down Farringdon Road was originally – and one can certainly imagine the whole road has been raised perhaps ten feet in height – when one compares the men standing in the old roadway and where the bottom of the staircase lodges are. One of those is shown here, courtesy of Gettys:

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When one looks at the man in the top hat (some sort of supervisor perhaps) at bottom left corner standing in Farringdon Road (which has to be raised perhaps ten feet or more) and the workmen toiling by the entrance to the staircase pavilion, its clear the modern elevations are far higher than the original.

If one really wants concrete proof of how low down Farringdon Road once stood, take a look at the lamp post! The top of that is nearly level with the bottom of the staircase pavilion! Other lamp posts can be seen too and these are all at the same lower level!

Compared to the earlier picture with the horses and coaches, by the time this photograph was taken the length of Farringdon Road towards Charterhouse Street has clearly been raised. The following picture from Google Streets shows just how high the road is these days compared to pre-1869:

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Similar location to that previous. Notice how much higher Farringdon Road is. Source: Google Streets

What this means is a look at the area today does not in any way give one a sense of how the lie of the land once looked. Its not even how the Fleet River valley looked either! The original river’s course was more towards where Shoe Lane is, yet many sources suggest Farringdon Road was the former course of it. What Farringdon Road does have however is the Fleet sewer which runs directly beneath it.

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Crop of the above image showing the ‘Thameslink’ cuttings/tunnels were sited a little further up the hillside. Not only that the construction of Holborn Viaduct itself (the two tiers of viaduct and the additional arches or lengthwise viaduct) can be seen. More on that below.

It may come as a surprise to find the ‘Thameslink’ line was not built at the bottom of the valley itself as many might think, but rather its builders, London Chatham and Dover railway, took their new line through several hillside spurs and that explains why a series of tunnels was employed. Over time these tunnels were merged into what is now essentially one long tunnel between Farringdon and City Thameslink.

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Construction works looking east, possibly 1868. Source: Twitter

Similar view today to that above. The churches can no longer be seen however.

Having discussed a number of things people are probably not aware of, what a lot of people do not know either is that Holborn Viaduct wasn’t just a viaduct, but a series of tiered viaducts – a bit like some of those Roman aqueducts. By this I mean there was one viaduct built to a certain height, and then on top of that another viaduct was built. Its one viaduct above another if you like! And both tiers performed different functions.

Additionally there are what the engineers call house vaults, these are smaller arches, that support the footways, so essentially there are six lots of viaducts within the structure. As well as the two main structures mentioned above, these further vaults (or arches if one prefers) are a pair, one each side of the upper viaduct. These in turn are separated into an upper and lower section. In a nutshell the lower viaduct is the main base, the roadway viaduct is placed on top of this and then the other smaller viaducts (or arches) along the sides.

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Image of Holborn Viaduct’s cross section. This large image is cropped from one available at the Welcome Collection.

The viaduct at either end was a simpler affair involving only one tier of viaduct. Most of it was two tiers, whilst the tallest sections around Farringdon Street required three tiers altogether.

One of the reasons for building it this way was because it was desired that utility and sewage systems be directed beneath the roadway through the arches. It meant a whole single viaduct would not have been as strong or as sturdy because tunnels were required along both sides. And that is why they built it the way I have just described. It was much stronger especially where strength was needed within the taller sections.

Where the subway crossed the railways these were built of cast iron. The sewers however passed beneath the railways.

The arched vault depicted in the above image was in fact a carriageway running the full length of the viaduct. The idea behind this was to give the various businesses and the basements of the houses lining the viaduct easy access without interruption say by using the roadway above.

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The subways under Holborn Viaduct. Source: Twitter

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Text explaining the Holborn Viaduct subways.

One will probably notice the tunnel in the middle of the above drawing denoting ‘Pneumatic Dispatch Tube.’ This was actually built but was short lived. It opened in 1865. The tunnels probably still exist in part. They were rediscovered in 1895. During major repairs in 1928 workmen again discovered the old tunnels with four pneumatic dispatch cars intact. There’s a good article on that here.

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Holborn Viaduct in 1910. Source: Pinterest

As we saw earlier there were four staircase buildings or lodges (or pavilions even) constructed either side of Farringdon Street giving pedestrians access to Holborn Viaduct. That would have been the one totally complete aspect of the scheme.

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Atlantic House with its modern north west corner staircase pavilion. Source: PicClick

Unfortunately the second world war put paid to this. The pair of northern staircase buildings were damaged beyond repair. The north east side was not replaced even though there was a new building known as Bath House sited here. The north west side was replaced by a modern concrete structure that formed part of the new development known as Atlantic House which was opened circa 1951.

Atlantic House was in turn named after an earlier structure that was known as Atlantic House! The modern incarnation which was opened in 2002-03 is also called Atlantic House!

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The ginormous building – Bath House – that stood on the north east corner of Holborn Viaduct. The staircase building/lodge/pavilion was lost in the second world war. Source: Twitter

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Google Streets view of Bath House just before it was demolished. Note the absent staircase lodge. A new one was built and opened in 2014. Source: Google Streets

Yet these fifties and sixties developments didn’t quite fit in with the general sense of things. The staircase buildings on the south side seemed quite lost. When it came to redeveloping the different sites part of the requirement was that replica staircase buildings should be constructed so that once again, Holborn Viaduct looked as it had originally.

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The new staircase building constructed where Bath House once stood. This was completed in 2014. Source: Twitter

The two new staircase lodges have lifts leading from Farringdon Street up to High Holborn and these are of course as per the modern requirements, being the need for disability access. So we have on the north side ultra modern buildings which look like they were built in the 1860s, and on the south side, the original 1869 lodges with their huge staircases still extant.

Despite loads of preparation (plus taking photographs on a number of occasions over the last few months) this article missed the actual 150th anniversary date – because I struggled to find an interesting way of writing up all this stuff. I wanted something that was quite fresh but I didn’t think it was any good & almost gave up! However I preservered and here is the finished article despite it being late!

To be continued…

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6 Responses to “Holborn Viaduct

  • Alex Mckenna
    1 month ago

    That Art Deco Atlantic House is a delight. Is that gone? I must keep my eyes open when I’m in the area..

  • Peter Staveley
    1 week ago

    There is a typo “Charterhoue Street”

  • Peter Staveley
    1 week ago

    “Thi would have gone from”

  • Mikey C
    1 week ago

    Great article! As I don’t often cross the viaduct and have probably never used the stairs down, I had no idea that the Northern staircases are modern replicas and not the originals!

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