Shopping in Style – Part 6 | The lost Lowther Arcade on the Strand
A late Georgian shopping arcade became a toy mecca for Victorian children until its demolition in 1902.
The West End has been a shopping destination for Londoners and tourists for over two centuries. Along with popular thoroughfares like Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street, there is also a selection of shopping arcades, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the elements. Today, two of the capital’s existing shopping arcades are over 200 years old. However, one Georgian shopping arcade barely survived into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century. This post is a long-delayed addition to Metro Girl’s Shopping in Style series, which explores the history of London’s shopping arcades.
After the success of the capital’s first two shopping arcades – the Royal Opera and Burlington, plans were made for another arcade on Strand. Lowther Arcade was designed by architect Witherden Young and built by William Herbert in 1830 (see Young’s architectural plans). It was named after William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale (1787-1872), who was Chief Commissioner of the Woods and Forests from 1828-1830. Lowther Arcade ran from the Strand to Adelaide Street and was 245 foot long, 20 foot wide and 30 foot high. The arcade featured 24 small shops, with two storeys above the shop level. The arcade was designed in a Greco-Italian style and was topped by a series of glass domes, flooding the aisle with light. Its classical design complemented the eastern end of Strand (No.s 430-449), which had been redeveloped by Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835) in 1830. Although shorter in length, Lowther Arcade was often referred to as the ‘twin’ of the Burlington Arcade in Mayfair. Just like the Burlington, the Lowther management also employed a Beadle to maintain order.
After opening, Lowther Arcade quickly won over Londoners with its architecture and atmosphere. In his 1834 book National History and Views of London and Its Environs, Volumes 1-2, Charles Frederick Partington wrote: “The Lowther Arcade is decidedly the most elegant establishment of this description erected in the metropolis… When we compare the costly and elegant bijoutrie exhibited for sale, it will be found the dealers lose nothing by comparison with those celebrated in the Arabian Nights and other works of eastern fiction.”
At the north end of the arcade was the Adelaide Gallery, a forerunner to the Science Museum. Opened by American inventor Jacob Perkins (1766-1849), it didn’t prove that successful and was replaced by an amusement hall in the 1840s. It then became home to Signor Brigaldi’s Italian Marionettes in 1852, and during another period was used as a music hall.
The Lowther Arcade was originally intended to be a destination for luxury goods. Among the early traders were shoemaker Henry West, jewellery comb dealer Adolphus Feistel, tobacconist William Smith, dealer in ‘China and French fancy goods’ Blum Samsom, and shoe/bootmakers Henry West, William James Somerset Kemmish and Henry John Fry. By the late 1840s, most of the shops sold toys and trinkets. Many of the top shops were owned by French, German and Swiss toymakers. Author Charles Dickens Jnr (1837-1896) described the arcade as a “bazaar principally for cheap toys and mosaic jewellery” in his 1879 Dictionary of London.
Lowther Arcade’s days were numbered when Coutt’s bank took over the lease of the land in 1901 for £55,000. A newspaper report at the time lamented: “If not a national institution, the Lowther Arcade is at least a paradise to which denizens of the nursery go with almost breathless interest.” The arcade closed its doors for the last time on 25 March 1902 and was demolished two months later. After 165 years down the road at 59 Strand, Coutt’s bank moved to 440 Strand in 1904. Its new headquarters were designed by Scottish architect John MacVicar Andersen (1835-1915) and built by Holland and Hannen of Bloomsbury. The new bank incorporated the existing frontage so it complemented the Nash-designed buildings either side, which were Grade II* listed in 1969. However, seven decades later, it was all change again. Between 1974 and 1978, Coutt’s was redeveloped by Frederick Gibberd and Partners with the huge glass frontage you see today.
Despite only standing for 70 years, Lowther Arcade has been immortalised in literature and entertainment. John Maddison Morton (1811-1891) wrote a one-act farce called ‘Waiting for an Omnibus in the Lowther Arcade on a Rainy Day’ in 1854. Dramatist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Charles Millward (1830-1892) co-wrote a pantomime called ‘Hush A Bye, Baby, on the Treetop; or, Harlequin Fortunia, King of Frog Island, and the Magic Top of Lowther Arcade’ in 1866. The arcade also formed an important part of the plot of Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Final Problem’ in 1893. The story sees Dr Watson dashing through the Lowther Arcade in a bid to escape Moriarty’s gang.
- The site of Lowther Arcade is at 440 Strand, Westminster, WC2N 5LR. Nearest stations: Charing Cross or Embankment.
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