Above: Part of Weller’s map of 1868 with an overlay showing the approximate position of the newly formed Aldwych and Kingsway. (Click on the map to enlarge it).
The Aldwych area of the Strand – where the curved road called Aldwych meets at two points – has a remarkable history. It would therefore be a good idea to spend a few moments getting to understand something about how it has developed over nearly two millennia.
During the Second World War vast areas of the City of London were bombed, leaving huge mounds of rubble in the form of timber and bricks. Most of the City’s buildings were not ‘glass and steel’, as they are today, but simple brick buildings. To any archaeologists who were still in London, the place was a ‘paradise’ because they could poke around the ruins without really having to worry too much about disturbing what they found. It should be remembered that many of the things we know about the Roman Wall and other Roman remains were discovered during that time, bringing the knowledge about Londinium to a new peak.
While searching for Roman remains, archaeologists also were looking for evidence of the Saxons in the same places. Apart from very scant evidence, hardly anything had ever been found within the boundary of the original Roman Wall. Although Roman masonry was found on unexpected new sites, the hunt for Saxon evidence produced no results at all. The story moves forward from the end of the War, in 1945, to some 40 years later when, in 1985, Covent Garden market had closed and some of the buildings were being demolished. Archaeologists were asked to investigate one such building site and were amazed to find that, in the clay, beneath the basement of the Victorian building that had been demolished, was evidence of a Saxon house. What they found was a discolouration in the clay that indicated the post-holes of timbers supporting a simple wooden frame of a house. Due to the artefacts found on that dig evidence for a Saxon settlement had at last been found.
That one dig was to transform thinking at the Museum of London. Since that time evidence for many other Saxon buildings have been found around the Strand – between Trafalgar Square and streets like Drury Lane. We now know that Saxons did settle in the Central London area but not in the City. They settled near the shore of the Thames – on either side of the Strand. Which brings us to consider the history of the Aldwych area.
Aldwych (the street) was a new street name when it was laid out just after 1900. However, its name came from an ancient name for the general area, going back centuries, derived from ‘Ald’ (meaning ‘old’ and ‘Wych’ (also spelt ‘wic’ or ‘wich’ meaning village or farm). After centuries of looking for the Saxons, the ancient name had been pointing to their settlement for almost a millennium.
Starting at the beginning, we now know that the Saxons settled in and around land now covered by the street we now call Aldwych some time after the 6th century. The Museum of London calls the settlement ‘Lundenwic’. Two ancient wells have a recorded history going back to those times – St Clement’s Well and Holy Well. A church, claiming origins from 1010, nearby is St Clement Danes. The second part of its name indicates that the area was also shared by Danes (or Vikings) who are known to have settled in parts of London at that time. In short, if the archaeologists could be given permission to dig up the whole of the land between Trafalgar Square and Aldwych, just think what they might discover about our Roman and Saxon past!
If you look at pre-1900 maps, like Weller’s map above (of 1868), you will notice that the streets in today’s Aldwych area were a random collection of narrow lanes and alleyways. Most of the evidence for that Saxon settlement had long been lost. Only Wych Street retained the ancient name of the original settlement.
Weller’s map was produced at an interesting time. It was among the first to start showing the Victoria Embankment which was then still being constructed. That project not only reclaimed land from the Thames but it provided an opportunity to build a new road – now called the Victoria Embankment – as well as a sewer system and an underground railway.
As can be seen from the map, a large site had been set aside on which to build what we now call the Royal Courts of Justice. They were moved into the new building in the early 1900s from their old premises at the Palace of Westminster.
We also see that Temple Bar was still in position – at the junction of Strand with Fleet Street. A few years later that was to be taken down and a monument erected to mark its historic site.
At last we come to the laying out of two new roads – Aldwych and Kingsway. That was carried out by the newly formed London County Council (LCC). Its concept was to be a slum clearance project which laid out ‘boulevard’ style avenues giving a grander aspect to this part of the Strand. The naming of Aldwych looked back to its ancient historic origins. Kingsway was named in honour of Edward VII. The project was an admirable one but, for historians, the nightmare is to try to work out where all the original narrow thoroughfares used to be. Notice that Drury Lane used to run in a ‘diagonal line’ and lead into Wych Street, eventually leading into the Strand near St Clement Danes. The southern part of Drury Lane along with Wych Street was lost in the new street layout and the maze of smaller streets was to be buried for ever. Drury Lane, by the way, is believed to have been an ancient Saxon footpath leading from today’s High Holborn (originally part of a Roman road) down to the Strand (another Roman route).
So, how do you work out where the old streets used to be? What you have to do is to remember that there are three constant factors: (1) the two churches (St Mary le Strand and St Clement Danes) have always occupied the same position; (2) the site of Temple Bar is now marked by a monument; (3) many streets have been altered over the centuries but Strand Lane and Milford Lane (both shown in green on the above map) are both very ancient in origin and appear on maps of any age right back to Tudor times.
Once the new road plan was in place, new theatres were built around Aldwych. The impressive Waldorf Hotel was also added. The almost semi-circular ‘island’ site at the centre of Aldwych was developed by a wealthy American businessman called Irving T Bush into a collection of office blocks known together as Bush House. The buildings add a sense of grandeur to this part of the Strand.
It will be seen, therefore, that the buildings in this part of town are relatively recent but a vast amount of London’s Saxon past has been learned in the area over the last few decades.