Holborn Viaduct: The history of London’s first flyover with a royal seal of approval
Linking the City of London and Holborn is a rather ornate road bridge. While other bridges in the capital attract a lot more attention due to their location and viewpoints, the Holborn Viaduct isn’t such a familiar sight to many Londoners. The bridge dates back to the Victorian era when London’s road and sewage system were given a massive overhaul. Built between 1867-69, it spans the valley of the River Fleet, which now exists underground and flows out into the River Thames by Blackfriars Bridge, a short distance south. It connects the steep hill of Holborn (the actual road) and Newgate Street, crossing Farringdon Street below, which follows the trail of the Fleet. It was designed by architect and engineer William Haywood (1821–1894) to improve access to nearby Smithfield Market and the City in general. Haywood had worked closely with Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1818-1891) on improving London’s sewer works in the 1860s, including the creation of pumping stations, like Crossness. Before construction began, city authorities agreed to demolish a series of old streets and buildings by the Fleet Valley, with the owners being financially compensated for the loss of their homes. The plans also meant destruction of St Andrew Holborn’s north churchyard, leading to an estimated 11,000-12,000 remains being reinterred elsewhere.
Holborn Viaduct is 1,400ft long, 80ft wide and made of cast iron. It covers three spans and is supported on granite piers. When it was completed, it became the first flyover in central London. Along the bridge are bronze statues, winged lions and replica Victorian-style globe lamps. The female statues represent Agriculture, Commerce, the Fine Arts and Science. Henry Bursill (1833-1871) sculpted Commerce and Agriculture on the south side, while Science and Fine Art on the north side are by the sculpture firm Farmer & Brindley.
Two step buildings were erected either end of the viaduct, with steps on both north and south sides allowing pedestrians to move between the upper and lower street levels. The upper storeys now contain offices and have ornate details, including more Bursill sculptures and wrought iron balconies. Each of the four buildings feature a statue of famous Medieval Londoners on the façade: merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579); engineer Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631); and London mayors Sir William Walworth (d.1385) and Henry Fitz Ailwin (1135-1212). Gresham founded the Royal Exchange in the City, while Sir Hugh headed the construction of the New River to bring clean water into London. Meanwhile, Alwin was the first ever Mayor of London and Sir William is particularly notorious for killing Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt.
Holborn Viaduct was opened by Queen Victoria (1819-1901) on 6 November 1869 – the same day as Blackfriars Bridge. The opening was a big event with royal and civic processions taking place between the road and river bridges. The Queen’s carriage stopped underneath the bridge so she could admire the detailing. Five years later, the bridge was joined by Holborn Viaduct train station, which opened on the south side of the Viaduct in March 1874. It was run by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway and was a terminus for trains from the south. The station’s services were reduced following World War II and it was eventually closed in 1990 and has since been redeveloped as Fleet Place.
The viaduct was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1972. However, not all the components you see today are from the original Victorian structure. The two step-buildings on the north side of the Viaduct were damaged in 1941 during the Blitz and what was remained were demolished in the 1950s. However, the north-west corner was faithfully reconstructed in the 1990s, with the north-east corner following in 2008. The lamps are 2018 replicas based on the original Victorian blueprints, as it’s thought the originals were destroyed during WWII.
- Holborn Viaduct, City of London, EC1A 2BN. Nearest stations: City Thameslink, Chancery Lane or Farringdon.
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