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Viaduct from Farringdon Street (looking north)

Holborn Viaduct photographed from below on Farringdon Street, looking north; it crosses the road obliquely, hence its description as a "skew" bridge. The building on the far side of the viaduct, on the right, is now being redeveloped, so there is currently no access to the viaduct at this corner.

Left to right: (a) City of London arms at the centre of the viaduct, with the City of London motto, "Domine Dirige Nos" ("Dirige" can be seen at the base). (b) Close-up of ironwork on one of the shorter spans.

Holborn Viaduct (built 1863-69) is taken for granted now by the many who pass over it every day, or work in the offices along its approach. People arrange to meet at various points on it (under the statues of Agriculture, say, or Commerce) without a thought. But the viaduct was a massive project at the time, "the most ambitious and costly improvement scheme of the [nineteenth] century" (White 47), and it involved some outstanding feats of Victorian engineering.

Built to span the valley of the old River Fleet, which was covered in and channelled underground during the eighteenth century, it was part of a development entailing much demolition and litigation as well as new construction. The plan included not only Farringdon Street over the Fleet, but also Holborn Circus, Charterhouse Street and St Andrew Street. The intention was both to give better access to the City and Smithfield Market at the north-west approach, and to counterpoint Bazalgette's Thames Embankment scheme. With its "iron girder skew bridge, borne on granite pillars," the new arrangement was seen as "the City's showpiece contribution to the Victorian modernisation of the capital" (Ward-Jackson 206). The name of the engineer, given in the inscription on one of the base pillars, was William Haywood (in some sources spelt Heywood), who served ably for 49 years as the Chief Engineer to the City Commissioners of Sewers. Note that after the River Fleet was covered over, it was used as a sewer, a purpose it still serves today. "Holborn Viaduct was not just a raised road," explains James Stevens Curl:

two lateral arched passages on either side supported the pavements, while the main carriageway lay between these. The vaulted passageways were divided into storeys. First was a space for cellars of the adjoining buildings, then against these was at the top a subway in which were laid the gas-, water-, and telegraph-pipes; then a passage, and below this a vaulted chamber at the bottom of which was a main sewer. Ventilation of the underground passages was cunningly provided within the pedestals of the cast-iron lampposts. A large tunnel and a subway for pneumatic dispatch-tubes were also incorporated.

The architectural details of this grand project were "handled superbly well, especially where cast-iron arches meet granite columns above exquisite gilded metal capitals that begin to herald Art-Nouveau forms, " continues Curl (226). At the time as well, much praise was given to the ironwork, which was perceived to be "throughout of a far higher character of architectural richness than has been introduced into any other similar structure" (Art Journal, qtd. in Ward-Jackson 209).

The Step-Buildings

Left to right: (a) One of the step-buildings from the side. (b) Façade of the reconstructed step-building. (c) Both façades of one of the step-buildings, showing balcony on one façade, and niche with figure of Henry Fitz Eylwin on the other.

Originally, two structures were built at each end of the main part of the viaduct, to house steps from Farringdon Street to the thoroughfare above. Two of the four were badly damaged in World War II; one of these has since been rebuilt as part of the redevelopment of the large office block here, completed in 2001. The structures have been variously described as "Italian Gothic" (Weinreb et al. 406) or, like the figures on their façades) "classico-Renaissance" (Read 269).

They have matching ironwork picked out in red, and architectural sculpture by Henry Bursill, including Atlantes holding up the balconies, and statues in the niches on their front elevations.

Two left: One of the step buildigs with the Atlantes supporting the balcony. Right: Henry Fitz Eylwin [or FitzAlwyn], Mayor 1120 to 1212 by Henry Bursill. 1869. 2 m. high. This last in its architectural surroundings.

Bursill was also responsible for two of the bronze statues on the viaduct itself. Little is known of this sculptor except the dates between which he worked; it is presumed that he was the same Henry Bursill who wrote the popular Hand Shadows to be Thrown upon the Wall (Griffith & Farran, 1859), available offsite here, and recently reprinted by Dover.

Left two: Sir Thomas Gresham Born c. 1519, Died 1579. 1869. Right two: Sir William Walworth, [Lord Mayor] 1370[?] or 1374 to 1375 and 1380 to 1381. [Note: these names and dates are transcriptions of the gilt letters and numbers on a polished dark marble or granite plaque that appears beneath the base of each statue; see the enlarged versions of images at left and right.] 1869, 2000. Both originally by Bursill.

The figures on the front of the step-buildings are representations of important Londoners. Sir William Walworth, shown on the reconstructed step-building here, was Lord Mayor of London twice during the fourteenth century, and is best known for having dispatched Wat Tyler at the time of the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 (perhaps a warning to the unrulier element in Victorian society?). The sculpture may not follow the original design very accurately (Ward-Jackson 211), but it has certainly helped to restore this part of the viaduct to its pre-war appearance. The step-building itself is an improvement, since it now has a lift as well as steps!

Sculpture on the Viaduct by Farmer and Brindley

Left two: Views of Fine Art from two different angles. Right: Three views of Science holding a speed governor or controller.

Sculpture on the Viaduct by Henry Bursill (fl. 1855-1870), and the Opening Ceremony

Left to right: (a) Close-up of Commerce. (b) Commerce, centre, and Agriculture, left. (c) Agriculture with her scythe [detail of agriculture]

The four winged lions at the ends of the viaduct, each with its left paw resting on a small globe, were by Farmer & Brindley, as were the two female figures on the north side, representing Science and Fine Arts. Bursill's figures on the south side, shown here, are rather finer. These are female too, and represent Commerce and Agriculture. Commerce wears a mural crown which suggests the status and fortune of the city. She holds coins and gold in one hand, while the other hand is stretched out in welcome. At her feet are the keys of the city and a parchment offering the freedom of the city (see Ward-Jackson 214). Agriculture's crown is fashioned of olive leaves, and her robe is fringed with oak leaves. Beside her grows corn mixed with poppies.

One of the winged lions by Farmer & Brindley.

The opening of the viaduct by Queen Victoria, which took place on the same day as the opening of the new Blackfriars Bridge, was a splendid occasion. First, "the combined royal and civic processions passed up Farringdon Street amidst an immense assemblage of people, the roadway in the middle being kept clear by soldiers and policemen. The Queen's carriage stopped for a moment before the Viaduct Bridge, that Her Majesty might observe the structure from below." Then the procession passed to the other side, taking in Smithfield Market, "which was gorgeously decorated with flags and streamers." Past cheering schoolchildren on either side, it then approached the east end of the viaduct:

Two colossal plaster statues, one bearing the palm of Victory, the other the olive-branch of Peace, were set up at the entrance, and numerous banners helped the general effect. Along the level approach to the Viaduct, which was from end to end strewn with yellow sand, seats were placed under cover, and in well-arranged blocks, for the guests of the Corporation. Above these streamed in the fresh breeze bannerets of the dagger and St. George's Cross on a white ground, from days immemorial the arms of the City of London; and the masts to which they were attached were painted and gilt. The pavilion, which had seats for 600 spectators, was constructed of red and white striped canvas at the sides, but of goldcoloured hangings, with devices in colour at the end, and with curtains of maroon to keep out the draughts.

At last everyone was assembled inside the lavishly decorated pavilion. "When Her Majesty reached the platform and the carriage halted, the Lord Mayor presented Mr. Deputy Fry and Mr. Haywood, the engineer of the viaduct. Mr. Fry then handed to the Queen a volume elaborately bound in cream-coloured morocco, relieved with gold, and ornamented with the Royal arms of England, in mosaic of leather and gold; and Her Majesty declared the viaduct open for public traffic" (Thornbury). It was considered a truly historic day for the City.

After that, however, the viaduct swiftly blended into the cityscape. As a commentator in The Builder wrote soon afterwards, "The improvement is so grand and yet so simple, and the direction taken by the new road is so obviously the easiest and the best, that difficulties of construction and engineering details are in a manner lost sight of, and it is not until the work concealed from the eye is dived into, that the true nature of the undertaking is understood" (qtd. in Thornbury). More recently, and perhaps still without due recognition of all that was involved in its construction, Holborn Viaduct has been dubbed the world's first flyover (Bullus & Asprey 242).

References

Bullus, Claire, and Ronald Asprey. Statues of London, with photographs by Dennis Gilbert. London &: New York, Merrell, 2009.

Curl, James Stevens. Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1990.

Read, Benedict. Victorian Sculpture. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982.

Thornbury, Walter. "Farringdon Street, Holborn Viaduct and St Andrew's Church" (from Old and New London, Vol. 2, 1878). British History Online. Viewed 3 May 2010.

Ward-Jackson, Philip. Public Sculpture of the City of London. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1990.

Weinreb, Ben, Christopher Hibbert, Julia Keay and John Keay, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 2008.

White, Jerry. London in the Nineteenth Century: "A Human Awful Wonder of God." London: Cape, 2007.


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Last modified 27 July 2011