Above: The western part of the New Road shown on Greenwood’s map of 1830 relative to the area of St Marylebone. The New Road is seen along with Edgware Road, Oxford Street and Regent’s Park.
The ‘New Road’ was one of the first road by-pass schemes to be built in Central London. If building a by-pass sounds familiar and a rather modern thing to do, this one was proposed as early as 1756. The whole road was finally completed in 1761.
In the days of Samuel Pepys, he often complained in his diary that the traffic was so bad that he had to abandon his coach in a busy street and start walking. His diary spans the years 1660-69. Some of the most congested streets included the Strand and, because it ran east-west parallel to the Thames, many people found it was quicker to hire a wherry and use the services of a waterman who would row the passenger along the river more quickly than using a horse-drawn coach on the road.
Our story relates to times nearly a century after Pepys. New roads were being laid out across London, usually crossing land that was then going to be used for housing. The New Road was a much bolder plan. Remember that immediately north of the City were still open fields in the 18th century, with the village of Islington just over a mile north of Smithfield and the even smaller village of Shoreditch about a mile north of Bishopsgate.
Due to greater mobility of the wealthy – who were beginning to acquire carriages for their own private use – people were starting to live in the countryside around the Cities of London and Westminster. In the 1750s Paddington was still a country village, with fields between it and Westminster. It was the same for St Marylebone. Travelling across London was a nightmare for carts and also for carriages because of traffic congestion. Therefore in the 1750s a more radical plan was proposed – build a bypass road around the Cities of London and Westminster. In simple terms, the plan was to put a road around the north side of Bishopsgate and Smithfield and continue it west to by-pass Oxford Street.
The layout was easy enough because all the land for the New Road would then be crossing open land and, in the main, most of the land was completely flat. You may need to consult a modern street map to understand the route. We will describe the New Road from east to west. It started just west of Shoreditch with a new route running in a straight line to the Angel Inn, at Islington. We now know it as City Road. From that point it continued with a slight bend and sloped down-hill to join the top end of Gray’s Inn Road. That stretch is now known as Pentonville Road because it ran past a newly created estate laid out by a man called Penton. Continuing further west, with another slight bend, the road ran to the top end of Great Portland Street. We now call it Euston Road because it ran past another housing estate laid out by the Duke of Grafton whose country seat is at a small village called Euston, in Suffolk. Euston Station also derived its name from the same source. The road finally ‘skimmed’ the north side of the village of St Marylebone and was later called Marylebone Road. Its western end joined onto Edgware Road.
No lorry-driver or bus-driver today would thank those who laid out the New Road for carrying out such a brilliant scheme. As we all know, if you put in a new road you only shift all the traffic to a new location and usually cause a greater traffic ‘snarl-up’ that you had before. That, of course, is exactly is what has happened. Two hundred years later the planners constructed the Marylebone Flyover to try to alleviate the traffic jams. Then what happened? The traffic jams became even worse. Will they ever learn?
Soon after the New Road was laid out, new buildings were erected beside it during the 19th century: St Mary (New Church), 1813-17, on the south side of Marylebone Road, by Thomas Hardwick; St Pancras (New Church), 1819-22, on the south side of Euston Road, to designs by William and Henry William Inwood; Holy Trinity, 1828, on the north side of Marylebone Road, by Sir John Soane; Madam Tussaud’s wax-works museum, 1884, on the north side of Marylebone Road.
It is interesting to note that about one hundred years after the New Road was built, in the days of constructing termini for railways ending in North London, this same road acted as the focus for four stations – Marylebone Station, Euston Station, St Pancras Station and King’s Cross Station. No railway terminus in that part of the capital ever came any closer to Central London than that road which had been laid out long before railways were even heard of.
The buildings continued into the 20th century with Old Marylebone Town Hall, 1914–20, on the south side of Marylebone Road, by Sir Edwin Cooper; along with many others which are too numerous to describe here. The list shows that the ‘New Road’ became an important highway beside which important buildings were erected.
When a road has been in place for all of your life you seldom give a thought to the fact that it might have been man-made at a particular point in history. Its a long time now since the road could be considered to be ‘new’. It is, of course, as busy as ever and because of the constant noisy traffic it is not a pleasant experience being a pedestrian. Nevertheless it has plenty of interesting features to see. Believe it or not, the eminent architect Terry Farrell has seriously proposed that the route should be pedestrianised! Whether that will ever happen is anybody’s guess.