The fact that London, up until the last third of the twentieth century, was largely a Victorian city, demonstrates the intense building activity which took place in the capital over nearly the whole of the nineteenth century. The great metropolitan improvements carried out by Nash, now so widely acclaimed, were only the start of a series of upheavals which were to afflict many of the older areas of central London for nearly a century. It was clearly intolerable that squalid and insanitary rookeries and poor communications should be a major feature of the heart of the largest and most prosperous empire of all time. This meant, in the nineteenth century, that London’s biggest industry was not commerce, administration or any other activity necessary for the smooth running of the British Empire, but, as Summerson notes, building. The noise, mud and disruption caused by large scale building developments were an everyday experience of most Londoners at the time. Scott would have to pick his way around the works in Trafalgar Square when he went to the Royal Academy, or on his frequent visits to the Abbey, he could either walk down Whitehall into narrow King Street, at the bottom of which he would have to negotiate his way round the clearances going on to form Parliament Square, or alternatively, walk down New Street into St. James’s Park, out into Princes Street in the south-east corner of the park, where, a few yards before he reached the west front of the Abbey, he would see an enormous reconstruction scheme taking place to his right. Although Westminster Abbey is built on the slight mound of Thorney Island, the land immediately to its west was so low-lying that it was often below the level of the Thames at high-water. In medieval times an open space, the Broad Sanctuary, was in front of the Abbey and along its west side ran the city wall and ditch with a gateway opposite the Abbey. Outside the city gate on the low-lying area along the line of Tothill Street, houses were built, which, because of their central position, became over the centuries the nucleus of some very close-packed development.
The area was so cramped that by the early years of the nineteenth century it had become one of the most squalid and overcrowded rookeries of London, including ‘several sinks of iniquity and vice’. The most notorious of these, around the Pye Street area, was known locally as ‘The Devil’s Acre’. Such conditions could clearly not be tolerated under Victorian standards of public heath and particularly in the heart of the capital of the empire.
A vast tract of some 400 acres, containing between 3,000 and 4,000 houses was to be swept away and the ground level raised, in some places as much as seven feet, so that proper drains and sewers could be provided. In 1845, the first of a series of Acts of Parliament was passed, setting up Commissioners for the Westminster Improvements and empowering them to carry out the necessary works. The Commissioners employed James Pennethorne who, as well as being the Government architect, was also John Nash’s professional successor. But unlike Nash, who was primarily concerned with improving communications in the metropolis by the formation of grand routes and open spaces, Pennethorne’s first consideration seems to have been the elimination of slum property, with the provision of new roads used as an additional justification for his schemes. He proposed that an entirely new street, Victoria Street, one thousand yards long and eighty feet wide, should provide a new route from the Abbey to the developments which were taking place close to Buckingham Palace, and that it should slice through the Devil’s Acre on its way. The resulting new buildings, which were almost uniformly in a debased classical style, were largely the work of Henry Ashton (1801-72), who had been a pupil of Smirke and who probably knew Scott, if not through Henry Roberts then certainly through the Institute, where Ashton was a senior member when Scott joined.
About the only concession to the vista-planning that John Nash had used so effectively, was the proposal to terminate the eastern part of Victoria Street on the front of Westminster Abbey. However, to enable this view to be obtained and a proper access to Victoria Street formed, the obstructing buildings and a small court at the entrance to Dean’s Yard, would have to be removed. As the land was owned by the Dean and Chapter, Blore prepared a scheme in 1847 but retired before it could be implemented. Scott was then commissioned to produce a new design for a range of buildings along the south side of the Broad Sanctuary incorporating an entrance to Dean’s Yard. This was to be Scott’s main contribution to the vast Westminster improvement scheme.
This was the most prominently sited secular building that Scott had so far designed, forming a flank to the west front of the Abbey. There was no question that it would not be in the Gothic style. Scott also had to provide a building which was of a sufficient height that it would not appear to be overwhelmed firstly by the two 225 feet high west towers of the Abbey designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor’s own version of Gothic and built after 1734, or secondly the great new blocks of Victoria Street on the other side. It therefore had to be at least four stories high, but the only trouble was that there was no such thing as four-storey town-houses with attics and basements at the end of the thirteenth century. Scott consequently seems to have abandoned any attempt to reproduce the scale and form of a secular Gothic building and confined his knowledge of medieval architecture to the more detailed parts. He had always said, since his conversion to Middle Pointed, that it was so adaptable that it could be used as a starting point for a new modern architecture and now he had to put this theory into practice.
The building consists of two terraces of four houses, either side of the gatehouse which gives access to Dean’s Yard behind. The entrance appears to be in the centre of the block, but its actual position was dictated by the layout of the buildings in Dean’s Yard. Scott attempted to overcome any impression of symmetry by giving the gatehouse an entrance appendage on its east side and by treating the two terraces of four-storied houses entirely differently. On the west side of the gateway the attic windows are set in crow-stepped gables, while those to the east are lit by dormer windows behind a battlemented parapet. The asymmetry is further emphasised by different window treatments on either side and an attractive two-storied projecting oriel window at the western end of the facade, which provides a sort of hinge for the different alignment of the facades of Victoria Street. The work was started in 1852 and completed in 1854.
It is a lavish building with a considerable amount of decorative carving, as befits its site rather than its function as a row of houses, with the appropriate Middle Pointed details, except for the crow-stepped gables. Although a feature of Scottish medieval architecture, they are rarely seen in England. However, they are quite common on old secular buildings in parts of Germany and in Belgium and Scott was possibly remembering the old houses that he had sketched in Ghent when he used this feature. He must have been very pleased with these gables as he used them again, more elaborately, on the St. Pancras Hotel and, of course, on Glasgow University. The front of the building is faced with smooth-worked stone, while the rear, which is a conspicuous feature of Dean’s Yard, is in yellow London Stock bricks with stone dressings and some decorative carving. Generally the lack of ornamentation makes it seem much lighter and more attractive than its oppressively gloomy north side.
Summerson, J., The Unromantic Castle and other Essays (Thames and Hudson, London, 1990), p. 180.
Clunn, H., The Face of the Home Counties etc. (Simpkin Marshall, London, 1936), pp. 210, 214-15.
Dyos, H. J. and Wolff, M. (eds.), The Victorian City, Image and Realities (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1973), vol. II, pp. 317, 365.
Pevsner, N., and Bradley, S., London 6: Westminster, Buildings of England (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003), p. 277 note.